In Defence of Putdownability

‘To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.’ Edmund Burke

I’ve read a lot of novels lately with a gripping plot, that compulsive unputdownable thing. I’m a sucker for a thriller, especially the ones that creep along glacially, gathering pace towards a shocking reveal. But I’m starting to lose the thrill. I’ve got twist-fatigue.

You know how it happens. You hear the chat as the latest ‘Girl In Trouble’ is raved about on Twitter and get sucked in. It sounds like a genuinely new angle or an original set-up. You’re excited.

Three pages in, there’s a shallow comparison. The narrator’s point of view slips a bit but maybe that’s intended. The dialogue is flat. But the narrative drive races on and by now you’re reading one sentence in three. It gets to the emotional heart of the story and you think, yes, this is it. The point where the author delivers on the promise on the cover, shows you an experience so vivid you could be there. Something that lets you be someone else. Something real. And it doesn’t happen.

Why not? Because the story doesn’t need it. You don’t need to get under the skin of the characters to read on. They don’t need to teach you anything, challenge you or give you pause for thought. So long as there is a live and present danger, you’ll keep reading. There should be no conflicted feelings, for them or for you, to slow things down. It matters only that the characters keep moving forward, fire-fighting their way through the plot, to keep you engaged. Like a mild contagious fever, leaving you spent.

Unputdownability sounds like a good thing but when you look at what it actually means, it’s not. Getting to the end shouldn’t be an end in itself. If it is, you can just skip to the last page. Call me impatient but if all that’s keeping me reading is the desire to find out what happens, that’s what I do.

There are other books that keep me compelled over days and weeks and they deliver the biggest emotional pay-off when it comes,   a happy consequence of an honest, uplifting, beautifully written book, with a character you can’t forget. You need time apart to understand them, to think about their dilemmas and learn from their mistakes. Otherwise, what is the point in spending all that time with the book in your hand?

I get that the unputdownable thriller is about escapism, filling up weekends that would be a bit flat, or train journeys that would be frustrating. They’re easy to dip in and out of and return to if interrupted, the flip side of their very compulsiveness. But a book can be so much more than a race to the end. Unless the end is truly explosive, that way lies disappointment.

Like a late-night takeaway, or that third glass of wine, it promises satisfaction and delivers nausea. You rush through at the speed of thought, skimming and skipping to get to the pay-off, then crash and burn at the limp, unsatisfying end. If it’s predictable, you feel cheated, and if it’s too twisty, misled. Because the only thing keeping you reading was the cheap thrill of the ride.

Give me a putdownable book anyday. The kind of prose that has you lingering over the words, saying them slowly to hear their delicious music, savouring the unexplained mysteries, the surprising ideas. These are the books you return to because of the feelings they arouse, the sublimation they bring, the very seduction of caressing their pages. Putting them down reluctantly. Thinking about them when apart. Longing for the time to read again. Consciously coupling.

If a book is like a lover, you want a long, powerful astonishing enigma rather than a bragging one night stand. You want to wake up in the night saying the words over in my head, not wake late and hungover with a bleak sense of guilt and self-delusion.

Life’s too short for fast, forgettable books. I’m going back to the slow burn beauties that weave truths and make me glad to be alive. When I pick them up. And when I put them down.

Only Connect. But what if you can’t?

When the super-duper lovely agent I’ve been talking to came back with a no, I took a deep breath and pushed it away. I knew from the first line of the email. ‘Thanks for sending in your revisions…’

After a deep breath, I went back to my phone and read the whole email which was generous and fair. But still a no. 

I closed it, turned back to my child and had a lively chat about Halloween. It wasn’t unexpected.  A few weeks had gone by. The lack of enthusiasm was clear. I apologised at tea-time for being tense lately and told the family my book wasn’t accepted.

‘Why don’t you write something else?’ said number two son, ‘something we can read?’ 

He’s never been keen on a psychological thriller about stalking. With swearing.

‘It’s a good idea,’ I said. ‘Maybe I will.’

‘That’s a shame. Can you fix it?’ said number one, ever optimistic.

‘I’ll try.’ I said. 

It hasn’t all been bad news this year. I’ve had some success with short story competitions. The writing I’ve done recently is better than it used to be. Even I can see that.

‘How do you feel?’ said husband. 

I explained to him how I was going to rip out the middle and restructure the whole thing, which would allow me to show great parts of the story I hadn’t shown before. I was really looking forward to it.

But two days later, after a long chat with a trusted reader, I’m bawling my eyes out. It feels like a real loss. It’s not just the scale of the task ahead, though having done one major rewrite over the summer, I’m in no doubt it will be HARD. It’s the thought that this book might never get there.

I LOVE my characters. I love their courage  and madness and strength and self-delusion. I love the depths of their despair and the wild solutions they come up with. I just can’t seem to make them come alive, believably, on paper. I don’t want to give up on them. Where will they go? What will they do? I can’t just leave them in the lurch! I’ll miss them. Is that the problem? I can’t round them and let them go free, off into the world, to be who they are? I question my sanity. I think it’s still there.

On the one hand, I’m maybe gaining stripes as a writer, because so many of my writing heroes have gone through this and maybe I need to, to learn the craft. But in the meantime, years are going by when I could be doing something else useful. There’s no point persevering, if the writing’s just not cutting the mustard. Is it all a waste of time?

Deep down, this feels like a misfire. Or my aim is off. Or I’ve not committed to the act of killing. Writing! The act of writing. Maybe there’s a similar sort of focus required to properly see the target, take in their posture, mannerisms, weakness. To read their behaviour. To  watch and wait till they make a fatal move. And then to stop them in words. 

Maybe this experience is necessary, to sharpen my taste for the kill, to teach me to watch and wait, to endure. I hope so. Either way, I’m not able to stop.

The 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection: 21 New Stories

https://www.amazon.co.uk/2016-Exeter-Story-Prize-Collection/dp/1539887812/ref=pd_ecc_rvi_1

Really delighted to be in this with my second placed story ‘Verdict’ and some gripping commute busters.

Ambition

This arrived in the post today from the lovely people at Momaya Press. They do great work helping new writers get their voice heard. Delighted to be in this annual anthology with smashing company for my honourably mentioned Leap In The Dark.

https://www.momayapress.com

Momaya Short Story Review 2016 – Ambition: Volume 13 (Momaya Short Story Annual Review) https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1539121054/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_KKsxybSZKE349

Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence Homicides*: Sex Differences April 2012 – March 2015 (3 years)

Domestic Homicide or Intimate Partner Homicide? The ONS defines domestic homicide as including the following: spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriends/girlfriend, ex-spouse/ex-co-habiting partner, ex…

Source: Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence Homicides*: Sex Differences April 2012 – March 2015 (3 years)

Helen is still not free

Something's not right here...

‘The whole world knows what you are now Rob.’

‘I still can’t take my eyes off you.’

And there it was; the reality check. I almost breathed a sigh of relief.

The verdicts on the Archers last night were met with great rejoicing by half the country and most of Twitter as the right result. But the truth is, for many women in Helen’s position, this is not the end.

Domestic violence continues to be poorly managed by the justice system to the extent that two women a week are killed by their partners or exes in the UK, all too often with a history of abuse*. The danger is not understood, the escalation of violence missed. It’s a hard crime to recognise even for the victim, hard to explain to friends and family who cannot match the victim’s account with the charming man they know. But it has terrifying results.

The Archers storyline has gripped the nation because it has played out in real time, coming into people’s homes and work places on the radio, Rob’s voice whispering into our ears as he whispered into hers. The drip-feed of toxic incidents  tells its own story. Maybe today, more people have a grasp of what it is to lose your confidence and sense of self because of this kind of bullying. Which is why this was too important an opportunity for the writers to pretend that the end of the trial was Helen’s Happy Ever After. Justice is often elusive for women in her position.

After the too-good-to-be-true verdicts, the final exchange between Helen and Rob brought us back down to earth. Rob is not going away. He’s been convicted of nothing because it wasn’t him on trial. The verdicts won’t slow him down or affect his behaviour in the least. She’ll have to deal with him in the custody battle which will follow now and he’ll try to worm his way back into her life.

It will maybe help Helen, that she’s had a chance to tell her story and has been believed. She’ll have the support of her parents and some of the wider community. But as the jury deliberations showed, she hasn’t been believed by everyone. 

Which makes me think that the writers are setting us up for trial no.2. It could be either of them on trial. This storyline has the potential to run and run. If it continues to mimic real life, it could last for years.

I wonder which of them will be alive by the end. But I already think I know the answer.

 

*Office for National Statistics, Home Office

 

 

Structo issue 15

Love love love this literary magazine. Issue 15 has several gems in it. It also has my first published short story ‘3 for 2’, one for all the trackled parents out there. The excitement with which I received this news was topped only by the massive rush of reading aloud at the launch in Oxford. 

Huge thanks to Euan, Keir and Elaine and shouts out to Claire Dyer, Claire Booker, Stephen Durkan, Stephen Hargadon, Jude Cook and Dan Micklethwaite fellow scribblers and issue-mates who cheered me along and my old pal Colette Coen who is in there too. I’m still smiling.

Hugh Miller Writing Competition

Delighted to be highly commended in the Testimonies of the Rocks: the Hugh Miller Writing Competition in May for prose. The winning entries are really lovely and worth a read. The competition was designed to raise the profile of this famous Scottish geologist and writer whose love of the landscape of Scotland shines through his words.

https://www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller/

 

To the other woman crying in the car park this morning

I don’t know your name and I don’t suppose you know mine but we know each other through passing smiles of recognition on the way in and out of school, towing small reluctant cargo, grasping little hands tightly only to let them go for the day. I see your struggles when the reluctance boils over, your firm cheerfulness in the face of small fears, your soothing cuddles when it’s all too much. 

I see the effort that it takes to hide your own fears, to master your own desire to run, screaming, back through the playground, to stay positive when there is  wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I see your hair growing drier, though the grey is dyed neatly away, and the glow fading from your skin, as the years pass, making us all older, the small ones taller. I see  you slick on the lipstick, before you get out of the car, and pull on a smile for each friend you meet.

I see the conversation in the playground when someone has a weird bug, or a discipline issue or a bullying friend. I see you take the time to chat, to share and take the weight.

And I see you on the days when it is just too much. The days when you cannot raise your head to meet the smile, cannot stop to chat, can only plough on to the door and back to the car because that is all the energy you have left.

I think today was one of those days for you, as it was for me and that is why I’m glad you’re here, because we are not alone, even as we sit alone here in our cars, behind our rainy windscreens. In a while, we will wipe out faces and drive on,  and never speak if it, knowing that today was one of those days for someone else and they were there to share it.

Another Faber Academy Success

The Faber Academy only ran one Novel Writing course in Glasgow, and I was lucky enough to be on it with a crowd of talented writers being tutored by Janice Galloway.  Now it’s time for anothe…

One of my Faber classmates with great news about another’s debut novel.

 

Source: Another Faber Academy Success