Reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’

On the road with a poodle and a writer

I’m in awe of John Steinbeck as a writer. East of Eden is one of my favourite novels and Journal of a Novel is such a generous gift, exposing his process and doubts. So, it was interesting to read him as himself in Travels with Charley, not as a narrator or a writer immersed in fiction project.

It’s 1960 and Steinbeck feels like it’s been too long since he’s travelled and been with ’the people’. He feels like the success of his career has created a distance between him and them, so he kits out a truck as a motorhome (which he calls Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse) and takes his poodle Charley with him on a road trip around the country. Travels with Charley are the recollections of that trip.

It’s Steinbeck, so his meditations are eloquent and intelligent but he’s also growing older and things have changed. It’s a different America to his youth. Like most generations, he wishes things were more the way he remembers them. He finds a sameness he wasn’t expecting in accents and interiors and food.

What I wasn’t expecting and didn’t like was his romanticism towards some aspects of masculinity and his bemoaning the disappearance of the hard drinking, brawling man. There’s an aggression and machismo to Steinbeck that I wouldn’t have guessed from reading his fiction. It’s always interesting (and sometimes disappointing) when the writer you read is revealed and you don’t love everything about them.

On his trip, he meets men. Apart from the odd roadside waitress, the strangers who cameo in these pages are men he’s met by the side of the road or in towns. Women just can’t do that. I remember, more than 15 years ago, backpacking around South East Asia and getting furious about the boys we’d meet. They’d be on their own or in pairs, riding motorbikes through the golden triangle, narrating their remote encounters and adventures. And they just didn’t get it when we said that it couldn’t be like that for us, that we couldn’t just jump on bikes and ride through the dusk or accept invitations back to strange men’s houses. 

But his language, as ever, takes you in and his meditations follow. He contemplates the racial tension he sees in the south, the politics of the Cold War and the rise of consumerism. The book is as much a narration of his journey through the nation as it is him philosophising on various topics, for example, ideas about the impossibility of objectivity and how the America he sees and interprets with the same cities and stops is completely different to someone else, or even to himself at a different time of day.

“Our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

He mentioned that he doesn’t take notes as he goes. He lets it all sit for a year and then writes it down. I don’t know how he can write with such detail and richness about something which happened at least a year or more in the past. I would forget the details, the conversations, the finer parts of such a big journey.

Some of my favourite parts were the ‘uh-huh, that’s how it is for me as well’ moments.

How an intensely bad night can just disappear without a trace:

The sun was up when I awakened and the world was remade and shining. There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.”

How he too has books that he’s never going to read:

“I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading – and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading.”

As a Steinbeck fan, I was happy just to hear his voice again, even though I didn’t like everything he had to say.

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5 ways to find your way back to the page

Sometimes you need to hit pause on your writing relationship

Last year was a low point for me and my writing. The dynamic was starting to feel like a bad marriage. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page. So, I had a trial separation. Here’s how we got back together. #writingcommunity #writerslife

At the end of last year, my relationship with writing felt like a bad marriage. Life was stalling in other ways, care of the pandemic and my tally of unsuccessful submissions, applications and pitches was getting depressing.

I wasn’t writing and I hated that I wasn’t writing but I just couldn’t seem to do it. There was no excitement. No chasing the unknown or following curiosity. No lightness or joy to it. Something that had been a life force for me had turned rotten.

It was feeding all my worst core beliefs. When I thought about writing the associations were dark and heavy; sadness and unworthiness, invisibility, despondence. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page.

How can you write with those shadows at your hand? You can’t. Like all relationships, if it’s bringing you more sadness than joy, it’s worth examining if it it’s time to get out and for me it was. The idea was to have a trial separation, get some distance, have a think about it all and see if I could rekindle what we once had.

Here’s how I made it back to the page.

  1. Read if you can’t write

Someone once said that if you’re a writer who isn’t writing, then you should be reading and vice versa. Reading is sustenance, joy and escape. It’s immersion and fascination and the repeated exposure to text is also instructive. There’s a kind of osmosis occurring as you take it all in. There are styles you’ve never read before, structures you hadn’t imagined, impossibly gorgeous language and clever plotting. So, if you can’t do nothing but are finding it impossible to do something, reading is a good way to start the journey home.

2. Ban yourself from writing…or not

If the writing (or inability to do so) is causing the pain, then step away. Don’t write. Just put a ban on it for an amount of time that lets you off the hook. This isn’t wheedling yourself out of your regular writing practice or habit. This is an intervention to get you back there. You can’t make it better without a bit of distance and reflection.

And if not-writing is a not-option then….

3. Make it mean nothing

My writing had all become so loaded with the expectation of outcome. I needed to make it mean nothing so I could love it again. You can’t just turn off your desire to be published or your hopes that what you write will be ‘good’ but you can write things that aren’t meant to go beyond what they are.

Keep writing in your journal. Excavate the emotions that are setting it all off until you get a little nugget of something. Go old school and write letters to friends, birthday cards longer than they need to be, post-its with too much detail. Write notes apropos of nothing in particular, stories or poems that you don’t have any future plans for beyond the action of simply writing them. Or see number five for writing exercises that offer writing practice minus a loaded expectation of the outcome.

4. Don’t let it steal your other joys as well

Writing is a big part of my identity, so the rot I felt there started to spread through to other aspects of my life. Try and isolate it to stop the spread. Champion the healthy relationships you do have and the aspects of your life which are bringing you joy. Give them more time and attention. It’s the same advice for anyone going through any other negative thought cycle. Do some exercise. Spend time with the people you love. Do things that relax you and make you happy. Try to stay present and avoid the constant mental replay and fast-forward.

5. Learn something

This is a great time to admit humility and allow that there’s always more to learn. Read a book by a writing teacher (Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas). Read a book by a writer talking about their process and advice (On Writing by Stephen King, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck).

This is a chance to try new things and think about process rather than the outcome. Writing exercises are exactly that, exercise. They’re a great way to write without expectation and for this writer, it was the way back to the page. It was a reminder of what I love about writing, what I get out of it and why, for me, it’s a relationship worth sticking with.

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The bedside bookstack – November 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this November.

The Magician by Colm Toibin, Simon & Schuster, 2021

Ah Colm, it just all turns to gold in his hands, doesn’t it? This one’s a biggie, epic in proportions (a real door-stopper) but also in the dimensions it covers. Writing about Thomas Mann’s life he manages to cover culture, history and politics at a macro level, while getting down to the fine detail of relationships, parenthood, families, repressed sexuality, writing and a creative life.

This book spans world wars, years in exile and pivotal moments in 20th Century history and yet often, I was stuck on the space and time he had to write. I was so distracted by his bookshelves and study, rebuilt in about four different houses, and by the way that children and visitors were shooed from his door and shushed, so he could write in peace. I wrote some thoughts about this and his right to write in my previous blog.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2017

How do we not all know who Katherine Heiny is? Why aren’t we all reading her for book club and recommending her to each other? I only found out about this book by reading a column in the Gleebooks newsletter. Always trust a bookseller, right?

Audra, who is the narrator’s second wife, is one of the best characters I’ve ever read. She’s an unfiltered extrovert with a good heart. The narrative is almost an aside to her stream-of-consciousness interactions with anyone and everyone she comes into contact with. This could be overplayed to get laughs. But it isn’t.

Read it. Read it. Read it.

I already have her latest book, Early morning riser on order.

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller, UQP, 2020

Stacey and Laney are twins. Laney’s the tear-away who sneaks out at night while Stacey is doing her homework. One night Laney doesn’t come home and Stacey’s dreams tell her that she’s in trouble.

There are things the Elders won’t tell Stacey and places no one is supposed to visit. Her mob isn’t supposed to talk to the Millers either but old May Miller knows what she’s been dreaming about without being told. This is a great YA read about culture, family and race.

Good Indian daughter by Ruhi Lee, Affirm Press, 2021

When Ruhi Lee finds out she’s pregnant with a girl, she freaks out. She thought she had the rest of her life to resolve issues around family, identity and her role as a ‘good Indian daughter’ but with a daughter on the way, she realises it’s time to resolve past traumas if she wants to break the cycle of gendered expectations.

This memoir is an honest journey into the difficult territory of loyalty, love and damage within the immediate family. Family is such a fundamental part of her life that her relationship with her parents is worth fighting for but redesigning the dynamics meets a lot of resistance.

Other people’s houses by Kelli Hawkins, Harper Collins, 2021

Kate is still grieving the death of her 5-year-old son. 10 years have passed. She’s taken up drinking and visiting open houses in expensive suburbs. When she visits the Harding House, she becomes obsessed with both the family and the residence.

I spent a lot of this book thinking ‘No Kate! That’s not a good idea. Please stop snooping!’. I get nervous about people being in places they shouldn’t be. I really wanted her to just stay at home and watch some TV but if she did, then we wouldn’t have a psychological thriller on our hands, would we?

Poly by Paul Dalgarno, Ventura Press, 2020

Chris hasn’t had sex with his wife for a loooong time. His solution is for their marriage to be polyamorous. The hope is that by having sex with other guys, she’ll want to sleep with him again. The reality is two people not being honest with each other and drawing other people into their vortex.  

Between his new girlfriend and his home life, seems more exhausting than erotic. He’s constantly telling his kids how much he loves them and himself that they’re the most important thing in the world to him. On their behalf, I was waiting for him to show it by making them a priority and stop palming off looking after them to everyone else.

Nancy Business by R.W.R McDonald, Allen& Unwin, 2021

I haven’t finished this one yet, but anyone who has missed Tippy and the gang, need not worry. They’re back together again trying to solve mysteries they’ve been told to stay away from. This time it’s an explosion at the local Town Hall.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, this is the sequel to The Nancys. 11-year-old Tippy Chan is a Nancy Drew fan. She lives in regional New Zealand and solves crime in her local town with the help of her uncle and his boyfriend. Good fun had by all, especially if you are or were a Nancy Drew fan.

For a Little While (new and selected stories) by Rick Bass, Pushkin Press, 2017

My husband found this on a list of recommended nature writing. As an Australian reader, it’s almost embarrassing that the American landscape evoked in this collection, is as familiar to me as an Australian one. It feels reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, in the space and pace. The stories I’ve read so far are full of mountains, flat lands, cattle, small rural towns and the quiet lives therein.

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Colm Toibin’s The Magician and the right to write

I’ve just finished reading Colm Toibin’s The Magician. It’s an epic that covers most of his life. Its rich layers cover politics, sexuality, history and culture and it has a certain weight to it because of that but also because you’re in such good hands with Toibin.

In the midst of international politics and repressed sexuality though, all I could think about was the practical aspects of his writing life and how enabled he was by those around him, especially his wife Katia and daughter Erika.

Every day of his adult life, he spent the four hours before lunch writing. He always had his own study and children and visitors were warned not to disturb him, or even make too much noise in the house. He had six kids.

In the afternoon he napped and read and thought. Can you imagine??!!!

He had money, which makes a difference, but he’d also decided that he was a writer early on and expected time and silence as part of that.

I wonder how much of his ideas about having a right to write and a right to make demands about it was about gender and how much about the culture of the time and his social status?

I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer but still struggle with the idea of having a right to write. Do I dare take time for this?  There’s ‘Who am I to have something to say?’ mixed in with ‘Who am I to write when there are other obligations in the mix?’.

It was also interesting to read the gestation of his ideas and how they would build to become short fiction and novels. It all came from his life, the families he was part of, the holidays he took and the people he watched.

No one ever belittles his writing because of this. They never say his books are just glorified diaries or dismiss the content as domestic. It’s always intuited as something bigger than what it is. He has conflicting desires about men and boys and basically represses his sexuality. Even when he writes with desire and detail about young men, which definitely wasn’t socially acceptable, instead of interpreting it as his voice and his desire it’s elevated and thought of as metaphor or a clever device.

Of course it makes me think, about what woman would ever have her family observations lauded as high literature like he did or what woman would demand silence and have her husband and son shushing company and making diary arrangements so that she could get on with her writing. Every day. For at least four undisturbed hours. And then allow some napping and thinking time on top of that.

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The eternal waiting room of lockdown

Take away the future and it’s hard to stay ‘present’.

We’ve been in lockdown for a few weeks now. I understand the necessity. It’s not as long as Sydney or as many times as Melbourne but what most of the country, nay world, has realised by now is that any lockdown is lockdown enough.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the idea of presence and my attempt to stop mentally scrolling backwards and forwards in time. Now I realise that to do that you need the neat bookending of both a past and future.

But time has slipped from its moorings. Lockdown, the eternal waiting room, has scrambled our sense of the future and, as I’m now realising, it’s hard to be in the present without a future.  

Waiting isn’t uncommon territory for a writer. We’re well aware of how uncomfortable it is to wait on submissions, feedback and querying. Waiting is its own kind of agony. It’s a protracted presence but one that isn’t really fixed on the moment. It has its sight set on some point in the future, when things will change or you’ll finally have your answer. With lockdown though, that future is on hold.

It feels like I’m caught in a Beckett loop except it isn’t Godot I’m waiting for. My eternal waiting is for the host to let me into the meeting, for the vaccine supply to arrive, for the daily reveal of dire digits in the press conference or for my daughter to actually start writing a sentence using her spelling words.

Some people are writing away and having a mini-renaissance with time and perspective. I’m frozen. Everything has come to a confused halt as I continue to wait.

My lockdown is stagnant in many ways but not still. Alas, not for me the baking of sourdough or learning of a new language. Between home-schooling, work and domestics, I don’t have much left in the tank, time or energy wise. I’m not reading much. I’m writing even less and I’m always at my worst when that happens.

Two characters in a Tom Stoppard play discuss the future. One says, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ The other replies, ‘Tomorrow, in my experience is usually the same day’ and I’d have to agree.

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The presence present

Trying to be more in the moment with life and writing

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit. My usual tendency is to spend way too much time thinking about the past and the future. Thoughts about the past keep me circling round regrets and pre-occupation with the future makes me feel like I’m still ‘waiting’ for life to happen. Both of these, of course, neglect what’s going on right now in the present and I didn’t realise how exhausting all this mental time travel was until I started to suspend it.

There are plenty of traditions and modalities that talk about the benefits of being present, so I’ve decided to give it a go. The results thus far are interesting. When you intentionally stick with what you’re doing, it gets done a lot faster and with more ease. I know, nothing surprising there. Just like so many of life’s learnings, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

In the morning, I set some intentions around presence by writing down a few sentences of how I’ll be doing it and why I want to do it. Then I check in at regular intervals during the day to see where my mind’s at – rarely in the present, it turns out. It’d be great to find that I was in the moment more but being reminded that I’m not is enough to cut the loop of whatever mental re-run I’m on.

I’ve mainly been doing it with work and general life admin but I’m wondering how it would affect my writing. I’m sorry to say that I’m not often writing in the present. You get those golden streaks of pure flow but especially before I start writing, I think a lot about the end product and whether it will be published and read, where and who by. Then I think about past pieces and what did and didn’t work.

I’m constantly scrolling backwards and forwards and deciding the future of a piece based on past experiences. It must weigh words down when they arrive with such hopes and expectation, when you want them to achieve something big before they’re even born. I wonder what it would be like to write without that? Does it read as something different when it’s freed from all that chatter and of course, is it easier to write when it’s just you and it in the moment?

I also wonder would it add more depth to my writing. The idea of tuning in to the senses is a common suggestion for finding more of a connection with the present moment, so if I’m more open to the tactile or visual or aural, would that have a flow on effect with my writing?

I’m interested in how it works for others. Maybe this is how everyone else is already writing, firmly in their now. If so, is this just how it works for you or did you cultivate a process to get you there? Or does all that past and future rumination freeze you and stop you from starting anything?

I’m going to keep trying to offer the present of presence to my words. I want to see if it’s as good for them as it is for my to-do list.

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Comparison the joy thief

Comparing yourself to others isn’t helpful but it is human.

Last week I found out that I was unsuccessful in four story submissions that I’d made for publications and competitions. I didn’t find out through the usual ‘unfortunately, this time your piece wasn’t chosen’ email, instead it was by reading declarations on Twitter from the writers who were successful.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. There they went, one by one, the little bubbles of hope and possibility I have when I’m still waiting to hear back on a few submissions. Next came a slow deflating sigh and then disappointment.

For me, the disappointment usually starts me questioning and the questioning usually leads to comparing. How many stories have they had published? How many competitions have they won? Do they have an agent? Have they had published a book? How many followers do they have?

There will always be room for comparison, even when books are published, an agent is secured and followers are plentiful you can compare prize nominations, festival invitations, sales into foreign territories, options for films or bodies of work. It doesn’t matter what you have, someone else will always seem to have more.

Comparison is indeed a joy thief. Comparing yourself or your work to someone else isn’t helpful but it is human. With that in mind, I’ve gathered together some quotes and I’m hoping that reading them will help to still the spiral for when I next slip into the comparison vortex.

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Comparison is the death of joy.” Mark Twain

“Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time.” Unknown

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it, it just blooms.” Zen Shin  

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You cannot envy the branch
That grows bigger
From the same seed,
And you cannot
Blame it on the sun’s direction.
But you still compare us….”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun (2010)

“Comparison is the most poisonous element in the human heart because it destroys ingenuity and it robs peace and joy.”
Euginia Herlihy

“Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable. ” Brenda Ueland

“There is really no use in comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone ahead and someone behind, and there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of different scales and gradients to be behind and ahead on.
To be number one is never final. It is and always will be a momentary, fleeting instant. But to be a growing version of yourself? That, you can be. You can be that every single day.” Vironika Tugaleva

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Exposure and security

The paradox of the writing process

I woke up last Wednesday night to go to the toilet and found our front door wide open. Panic and confusion froze me for a minute but the real shock was the immediate feeling of exposure.

We have a front gate that is usually shut, a screen door that is closed and a front door that is locked after them. Each one of these things isn’t much; vertical pickets, metal and some mozzie mesh, wood with a glass inlay. They are thin and breakable but their presence has always felt like protection enough. Standing in the middle of the night with the cold air coming in, I certainly felt vulnerable without them closed.

We have a street light directly out the front and it lit up the hall like a runway. Whoever it was followed the light to my handbag and car keys. They took both, left the doors open and drove away in our car.

So, I’ve been reflecting on exposure and security and what the things are in our life that make us feel safe and whether they really are the refuge that we think they are. It was quite the digression but this leads me, of course, to writing.

For a lot of us, writing is a refuge. It’s a safe place and a haven. Does it feel like this because of our familiarity with it? Is it because we control it or because we’re expelling words onto a page and putting them there for their own safe-keeping?

Secure things are usually known and familiar. They offer us comfort and reassurance. There is also the idea that security allows self-assurance which is a cosy concept to be tucked up with. And so, we come to the tangled paradox of writing because often it doesn’t feel like that at all.

Writing can be uncomfortable and unnerving and sending our words out into the world is surely a kind of exposure. You give a glimpse of what is within and open yourself up to other people’s reactions. Then there’s the self-doubt and the cyclical swing between pride and embarrassment.

But we still write.

Writing offers us exposure and security at the same time and perhaps that’s where the challenge and the thrill of it lies, in trying to find a balance between the push and pull of it.

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Games you shouldn’t play

A few tips for your next game of ‘How old were they when they published their first book?

Before we start, a disclaimer. There is a small chance that playing How old were they when they published their first book? will make you feel better but a much bigger chance that it’ll make you feel worse. The older you get, the worse the odds are. Young players have a much higher likelihood of coming out satisfied.

Tip – Even young players might want to avoid the Romantic poets who have both early publication and death.

Here are a few authors you may want to try for a more reassuring outcome of how old they were when their first books were published:

Elizabeth Strout –42 years old

Marcel Proust – 43 years old

Julia Donaldson – 45 years old

J. R. R. Tolkien – 45 years old

Raymond Chandler – 51 years old

Daniel Defoe – 59 years old

Laura Ingalls Wilder – 65 years old

I usually only play this when I shouldn’t, when I’m already at a low ebb about where I’m at with my writing and publication possibilities. And of course, it usually makes me feel worse, which means I start avoiding the type of books I normally like to read because otherwise I’ll just do the maths and feel shitty again.

This week, I played a few rounds and got so disheartened that most of my reading pile became off-limits. When that happens, I usually head to the classics. They seem too out of my world for a direct comparison. I picked up Silas Marner and yet somehow, I found some things to envy in George Eliot’s literary trajectory.

My solution was to get out of fiction altogether. I headed over to Jonathon Driori’s Around the World in 80 trees where there is always solace and beauty to be found no matter how low my spirits.

Here are the rules but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step 1

Read a book that you like written by an author who is a similar match to your own demographic (age, gender, genre….).

Step 2

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when the author was born.

Step 3

Read the bio/blurb to find out what their first book was.

Step 4

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when their first book was published.

Step 5

Head to Wikipedia for the above information if you can’t find it in the book.

Step 6

Do a detailed Google search to find any information that is not in the book or Wikipedia.

Step 7

Do some simple maths.

year of first book publication – year born = age that first book was published

Step 8

Compare their age to your age and react accordingly.

Final note – This game isn’t exclusive to writers. You can play by changing the author for any person in your chosen field and by changing a book to any achievement that you’re aiming for.

Have you got any more later-life debut authors that I can add to my list of reassurance?

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The Promise of the Premise

What are you promising readers at the start of a story?

Opening pages are like a contract that you make with your readers – here are the people you’ll follow, here is the pace we’re likely to take and this is the tone I’ll be taking. If the reader is up for it, they keep reading and reading. That’s their part of the contract.

Your part is an agreement to give them a story that matches what you offered at the start of the story. You don’t need to mirror the opening or give them the ending they anticipated but I now think that you do at least owe them a sense of balance.

I say ‘now’ because to be honest it’s something I haven’t been in the habit of doing. I haven’t thus far been much of a plotter when it comes to writing fiction, so when I start writing something new, I don’t think about what I’m offering the reader. I can’t because I don’t even know where I’m going yet.

Recent feedback on some of my short stories has made me think about this private pact between the reader and writer. I was writing endings because I liked the image that they left but my readers wondered why after following a certain character for most of the story I would end on another one instead. For someone who believed in promises, I didn’t realise how casually I’d been breaking them.

I think in novel length manuscripts I’m more aware of who is owed the air-play. In short stories if there is a roving POV, I’m not always sure that I divvy up the limelight quite right. It doesn’t have to be about character though. The question is whether you’ve honoured your set up.

I find beginnings and endings tough to write. They can be awkward and clunky and feel like they have a lot riding on them. However, editing and rewriting them becomes less unwieldy when you think about the promise of your premise. There’s a nice circular feeling to it.

If your initial offering doesn’t match anymore then it gives you the chance to think about what and where your real story is and how you could change your opening so that it honours what the story has become.

A promise is a promise after all.

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