As you may know, Christmas is a hard time for me. The last three or four of them I had to bail upstairs to escape my family even if just for a little while. It gets intense around them and I never quite feel welcome. Two years ago was the worst, I won’t drag you through the details again but that December through February were pretty fucking hard. I got over it eventually, just, but it sucked.
This year wasn’t so bad. I opened my presents without too much self-consciousness, ate my entire meal and then tried to enjoy the food-coma TV session. The latter became too much as expected, but this year instead of slipping upstairs to cut myself, I decided go get drunk on shots with my sister. We invented drinks, I learnt that I can layer Baileys on Creme de Menthe, and we actually had fun. Then I got emotional. Now, I’m not much of a drinker, so I don’t really know what kind of drunk I am. I usually get a little cuddly, then get self-depricating. This time however I let my December stress erupt in tears while my family watched Apollo 13 in the other room. I still don’t know if they heard me crying, but I was a mess.
Me and my sister talked for a good 30 to 40 minutes. It’s the most open I’ve been with her (voluntarily) in pretty much ever. I don’t want to say what we spoke about, but it was nice and helped put certain things into perspective. One thing I told her was that I still have anxiety and depression. She knew, of course, that I’d struggled. She accidentally saw one or two of my darker posts on here so she knew I cut and she knew I’ve struggled. But this time I chose to tell her myself. And now I’m telling you, just because it helps me to get it out in written text.
I’m struggling. Again for my own reasons I don’t want to talk about some of it, some things are too personal even for The Hell Butterfly. But I trust you and I like to write about it, regardless of whether you want to read it. I’m not happy in my job. I work in web support for 3 well known train companies here in England. I help people make bookings, process refunds, sometimes file complaints. It’s not a bad job and it pays enough, but I’m not learning and it’s stressful. People in the public are stupid, and rude, and sometimes even insulting. And when an angry Indian man who you’ve just denied a £100 refund to starts yelling and swearing at you down the phone, it’s hard to keep the anxiety from fucking up your job (yes that happened). I want to quit so bad, start a career in writing or editing or publishing, but I need the money and I’m trying to make a living in a dying industry. The conflict of what I want to do versus what is out there for someone like me is intense and it makes me uneasy.
I’m also finding it very hard to eat at the moment. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about my food issues on here. I find it very hard to cook in front of people, and nearly impossible to eat in front of people I don’t really know or trust. It gets harder still when the depression and anxiety kicks in. I start over thinking, worrying about my weight and body shape, what people will think of me, and it spirals to where I tell myself I don’t deserve to eat. I care so much what other people think that I start to hate myself and feel disgusted with myself for even being hungry. I’ve had a long-standing chaotic relationship with food. I think it stemmed from a childhood incident involving Weetabix, my mum pouring it on my head, and being forced to go to school like that in my nightie. I don’t like to remember that. About 4 or 5 years ago I would make sure I didn’t eat more than around 500-600 calories a day. I kept a spreadsheet. If I ate over 1000 I punished myself in ways I imagine you can guess, knowing my personality. My point is, the last few weeks have been tough and with it has come more issues surrounding my ability to eat. Some days at work, if there are 4 or more people in the break room I can’t eat. There’s too many people and I panic. It means some days I wake up at 05.30 and don’t eat until 15.00, or eat at noon then don’t eat again that day.
I’ve recently come down with the illness everyone seems to be getting too. It feels like my voice box is trying to claw its way out of me through my ears. I feel nauseous a lot and that in turn affects my eating. Add the stress of my job and a recent (mildly terrifying) personal scare and we have a recipe for disaster. Yesterday I had a few cups of tea, some pasta at about 1pm, then only managed to stomach a half bowl of ice cream and a few sips of tea before bed. I was ill and in a very bad state of mind. It had been a hard day and a tough month in general. Finding the desire to put food in my mouth is a task in itself. I feel sick thinking about moving the fork to my mouth and chewing. It seems the only times I eat right these days is when my boyfriend’s dad invites me round for tea and cooks for me. I’m trying to fix that.
So basically this post is just me saying I’m struggling with food, my job, and my personal life. I’m hoping I can get back on track with writing as I’m finding it hard to know how to do even that but it does make me feel better to post on here, no matter the subject. Thank you all for sticking with me and Happy New Year everyone.
Why do we feel we have to censor our writing in order to please the general public? The same old stories with their same old characters and same old plot-lines keep coming back over and over again onto our shelves. The same archetypes that have circulated the literary globe since the dawning of time. I can’t help but wonder, where are the real gruesome stories? Where is the blood, the incest, the fucked-up catastrophes that, let’s not forget, exist in real life.
Why is it socially unacceptable to write stories/poetry/lyrics about the topics that are a litle bit too ‘out there’ for a select few over-sensitive people? For some reason, there are a great number of people in the world who refuse to acknowledge that shit happens. Some people acknowledge it, but refuse to accept it. And what then for those of us that do both? I know there is some messed up stuff in the world, and I accept that. So why should it be considered ‘wrong’ or ‘taboo’ to stay quiet on the subject in literature?
I admit, I am not a great writer. I was under the impression for years I was great, but honestly I just know how to manipulate the English language in a mediocre way. But this aside, every story I come up with has some form of fucked-up shit happening either behind closed doors, or bang in the centre of a public place. For example, I just wrote a six word story for my university coursework:
Pale, cold, naked; Daddy’s Little Girl.
To many people the twisted suggestion of this will be too much to bear and in their heads they will be screaming why has something so vulgar been written? But I say to you, why not? Why shouldn’t it be written? Allow me to explain the meaning behind this story. On the face of it, it is a young girl loved by her father – maybe too much, and in the wrong way. The initial impression is perhaps some form of abuse. The point of the semi-colon is to split the physical attributes with the suggested context. But this can be read another way. Pale and cold, both applicable to the living and dead is it not? The other possible scenario here is a dead girl, treasured by her father. We don’t know why she is naked, but she is ‘pale and cold’, dead. In either case, the impact hits you like a truck on the highway.
This is why I love twisted literature.
What is the point of having one thousand books that all have similar characters, end happily and never have a single catastrophe, when you can have one book that smacks you in the chest with the iron fist of transgression? Dark writing is what I do best, and it is what I love to read. Shit goes wrong; death, disaster, sex drugs and tuck-and-rolling from speeding vehicles. Okay, so maybe the last one is a little unreaslistic, but why is it so wrong to use this unrealistic scenario to imply something much more sinister?
Basically, what I’m trying to say, is that vulgarity can make a much more moving piece of writing than a boring same-old-same-old mass produced pile of garbage mainstream literature. If you aren’t made to feel something when you read it, what is the God-damned point?
“Pale speckled eggs.”
I can’t remember what book this line is from, but I do know it was the very first sentence. It was this that my creative writing tutor drew our attention to on the subject of a punchy opening to any novel. I remember the moment perfectly: He stood in the middle of the room, we watched expectantly wondering why he looked so pleased with himself, and then he says it. Slowly, one word at a time, with a smile in his voice, “Pale speckled eggs.”
His point was that the first sentence of a novel can make all the difference as to whether the reader continues on. Cliched openings can make the reader immediately heave a sigh and close the book. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s true. So what makes a good opening line?
Here is what I personally think makes a catchy opening. Don’t take my word for it as the only rule of thumb because I’m sure other writers would have different opinions. This is just what I believe would work and what I try and do in my writing.
Something different. Cliches have been seen time and time again, ‘It was a warm afternoon in July and the sun bathed the grass in its ambient heat.” Difference is key. For example, when was the last time you read the sentence ‘pale speckled eggs’? The first thing your potential reader will see should stand out from other books or stories. If they read something they’ve seen countless variations of, their interest will wain at this crucial early stage. Something unique will stick in the reader’s mind. One example can found in Wallace’s Infinite Jest – “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” This sentence could take the story in any number of directions and it so uniquely phrased that it immediately grabs interest.
A set up. Give the reader a teaser. So you’ve got a punchy sentence that has grabbed your reader, now what are you going to do with them? Reel them in. It will be confusing and conflicting for your reader if you mention the three armed ninja drop-kicking a potato in your first line and then not bring him up again. Your first line should relate to an important part of your story. It should set up something key to be revealed in that first paragraph/page/chapter. For example, it may give a brief summary of the main plot themes as in The Woman in White – “This is a story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It may reveal something about the main character, ie their personality, as in Great Expectations – “My Father’s name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.” The first sentence should give the reader an indication of something they will find out about the story.
Intrigue without over-sharing. It can be tempting to reveal too much in an opening sentence to get your point across right away. Be stingy in your first sentence. Be a tease. Reveal something but leave your reader wanting more. An opening sentence should give a hint of what’s to come but should hold enough back to reveal over the next paragraph/chapter. For example The Elder Gods – “The Land of Dhrall, if we are to believe the sometimes fanciful legends of the region, has existed in its present location since the beginning of time.” Straight away we are thinking, what is The Land of Dhrall? Who’s legends? Why would it not be in the same location as it used to be? It gives the intrigue but doesn’t give the whole game away. Similarly, The Yellow Wallpaper – “It was very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” Why was it rare? Why did they want ancestral halls in the summer? Who is John? Gilman has introduced a number of interesting variables without over-sharing It makes us want to know more.
Here are the opening lines of some of my favourite books:
Embassytown – “The children of the embassy all saw the boat land.”
The Secret History – “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
War Horse – “My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head.”
Mysterious Skin – “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life.”
And just because I can, and because I hope that I’ve followed my own rules, here are the opening lines of some of my pieces:
Bed of Roses (Chapter one, not the preface) – “The light-bulb moment: the point in time where an idea or answer pops into your head and you just know: it is going to be good.”
Meanwhile in A&E – “Bluebottle fuckers buzzing in his eyes.”
Rebellion – “The walls were painted white today.”
And one example of a mistake of mine where I fell into the cliche pitfall. This is from The Bucket List Boys – “When Richard woke up on that bright July morning, bare chest damp with a light sheen of sweat, red mark appearing where the key on its blood red ribbon had imprinted, it was that last thing he expected when his phone rang to change his plans for that day, and many to come.” I don’t like this sentence, but I like the rest of the chapter. I’ll probably change this.
For those of you who are writers, look back over your opening lines. Are they catchy? Do they grab the attention but leave the reader wanting more? Are they cliche? Perhaps share some of your opening lines here in the comments. For everyone, have you got any favourite opening lines that were particularly effective or memorable?
As I suggested I might in my previous post, here is one of my short stories from back in the day. This piece was written for the Gothic part of our module in Year 10. A couple bits made me cringe a little, but as promised here it is as written originally, no changes made. Enjoy, or not, it’s up to you.
I was sitting bolt upright in my bed, having once again had the waking dream that had been haunting me for weeks now. Maybe I should stop with the studying. I like to study, especially Greek mythology. I’m a sucker for the Greek mythology. All the Gods, the creatures, the beasts. They intrigue me…but they had started appearing in my dreams. The chase. The same chase, except, somehow the creature got closer and closer to me each time. As I sat there desperately replaying the dream that had caused my unpleasant awakening, I wondered how this could have happened.
I had been running from this strange beast for what seemed like an eternity. I hadn’t once looked back for fear of seeing something I knew I didn’t want to see. Especially not here. The creature sounded like nothing I had ever heard in my life. I knew it was not an animal, or a human. But what it was still eluded me. I ran on, afraid that if I slowed the tiniest amount it would catch me. My adrenaline pushed me forward. This all seemed so real to me. I could hear its breath as it caught in its throat. I could smell the stench of rotting flesh, and something else so rancid it was indescribable. I could even sense the sharpness of those sharp fangs. I hadn’t seen them, but somehow I knew. My legs screamed out to me to stop. Give up. But I knew I couldn’t. who knew of the destruction this creature was capable of? Who knew that no matter how fast or far I ran, it would get me anyway? Kill me. Or simply rip me to tattered shreds until here was nothing left to destroy? The answer to these I did not know. What I did know however was that I must keep running. Running onward. Running…somewhere.
I forced myself on. On into the distance. I hadn’t a clue where I was going, nor did I care. Anywhere was better than here. However, there was something eerie about this place. Something vauely familiar to me. This place looked like another world. Another time. And even as I ran I was thinking how well placed it was to be in my nightmare. It suited my situation well. Almost too well. There were ruins scattered here and there. There were tombstones with indistinguishable names on them. Even if they were legible, the different language would have prevented me anyway. I saw dilapidated buildings. Homes in disrepair. Families who were left homeless, tossed out on the streets were staring up at me in horror. Mothers and children fled screaming tears streaming from their terrified faces. Some of the elderly women were chanting prayers urgently in this strange language. It may even have been Latin. My passion for Greek mythology would now be my downfall. But that wasn’t important at the moment. I would have time for regret later.
As a figure emerges, heading obviously in my direction, I almost tripped and screamed in terror as I felt the hot breath of my pursuer on my neck. I managed to somehow regain my balance and continue. As the figure drew closer, O realised he could be no more than mu own age of fifteen. Just a lad, but the bravest one in the whole village. Just from first glance I could tell he was a boy who had been lucky with his looks. Tanned skin. Rust coloured hair. Yet he seemed to be dressed much better than the rest of the village. Something about him, his presence, seemed familiar to me. “Why was this?” I wondered as he kept up the same pace as me. He shouted in urgency for me to follow. His accent was hard to place but his English was perfect.
“Hello. My name is Cyan. There is no time to explain but if you want to live, you must do what I say!” shouted this strange boy. I was astounded. I had though everyone in this village was sharing my fears, but apparently there was someone who was not afraid. Or at least if he was, he wasn’t showing it. I had also thought that having Cyan as my guide things might get a little easier. But oh was I wrong. I was completely wrong. I could see it in Cyan’s eyes. E weren’t going to make it. We were going to die. I was going to die. Cyan, the boy that has tried so desperately to save me would die. We had one last hope. One last chance for survival. If there was a bridge, there must be a river. And though I suspected it was empty, it was not. It seemed to shimmer with an eerie grace. As if at complete unawares of the danger that was heading its way to break its peace. Its tremendous serenity. But we had to.
He grasped my hand to prompt me to prepare for impact. This was going to be close. Very close. But if I wanted to keep my head, it was best to just dive headfirst into the situation. Through the confusion and rush of sound and emotions I just managed to decipher one word. One that soon would be echoing through my head like a lost leaf in the wind. The word was jump. Jump. Jump for my life. So I did. I leapt into the air feeling the comfort of the boy’s hand slip away. I stared in horror in Cyan’s direction as I realised he was fading into nothing. Was he a figment of my imagination? I looked down in time to see myself getting bigger. Suddenly, in a rush of swirling water, I was pulled beneath the surface as if now a prisoner of this river for having disturbed its sleep. In a torrent of blackness I was trapped. Black water. Black sky. Then I seemed to be engulfed by sound. Sound of water. Sound of bubbles erupting from my mouth in a desperate attempt to scream. Sound of my breathing hard as I brought myself back to reality. And in a sudden moment of clarity I understood. I finally knew what this creature was. The beast. This monster. And if it managed to get any closer to me in my dream next time, then I knew I would be left for dead.
This creature was known as the Tikbalang. Half man, half horse, this monster bore the head and feet of a horse, and the body of a fully grown man. It travelled at night to rape young female mortals. The raped women would then give birth to more Tikbalang. From what I had learnt, I found that they are also believed to cause travellers to lost their way particularly in mountainous or forest areas. Legends say that when rain falls while the sun is shining, a pair of Tikbalang are being wed. Tikbalang are very playful with people, and they usually make a person imagine things that aren’t real. Sometimes a Tikbalang will drive a person crazy. This would explain it. Cyan wasn’t real. I was going crazy, just like legend stated. I longed to be saved. I wished and I hoped for that one person, this dream boy I believed to have imagined. And he had appeared. But he wasn’t real. The Tikbalang had done what it set out to do. It made me believe.
I was just scanning my harddrive at my old documents and it makes me laugh every time. Seeing photos from several years ago, ones that I’d shoved into a folder and buried in the deep recesses of the drive to never be dragged out again. I never move them, even if I’m not as embarrassed or enraged by any of my findings as I was at the time, I must have put them there for a reason and I like to keep them there.
I just went through my creative writing folder. It was labelled Short Stories and I’ve written quite a few over the years. Many I don’t remember until I see the title, and even then I may only remember the story properly once I’ve opened the document. Some I’ll read the title of, recall, and remember why I never read it but never delete it. Some remind me of difficult times, or of times where I was in such a good mood the words show it, and even if I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be as truly happy as back then, the memory is nice for a few minutes.
I found two short stories for my Literature class from year 10. I would have been fifteen or so at the time of writing them, and it was somewhat shocking, as it always is when I read them, how much my writing has changed. It is an unfortunate truth that it has not entirely changed for the better. I really like some of my old work. I was too young and too inexperienced to have picked up many bad writing habits. The older writing, whilst still rather obviously the writing of a teenager, has a certain … charm about it, perhaps because this was me just discovering my potential as a writer. For some context, it was in this same year I began my novel.
I am probably going to share some of my older writing in the next few posts. I will share them exactly as they are on the document, as I wrote them at the time. I have gained five years of writing experience since then, but that experience will do no good to the old stuff. There was a certain way that I wrote, such clarity perhaps. I didn’t have any other experience to draw on, didn’t know what mistakes I could make. I guess you could say I was somewhat fearless in my writing pursuits because I didn’t know what could go wrong. And I think I could learn from myself. Looking back on my older work, seeing the point where things started to go wrong, picking up on the things that I did right before that point.
For any writers out there reading this, I suggest maybe you do the same. Look back over old writing, see what the earliest pieces are, maybe if you have it somewhere look up the very first piece you wrote and think. What was going through your mind, what processes did you use? Did it work? Was it better than now? Perhaps it is just as good, but good in a different way. For example my writing style is now more mature, but I’ve also fallen into bad habits. I describe my characters in too much detail. Despite my best efforts I do use adverbs when I don’t need them. My characters are never very different from each other between stories, I find myself coming back to the same types of character. Looking over my short stories and my novella ideas, and comparing them all to each other and to my novel I have found repeats. For example there is always a stereotype that I defend, there is always a gay character, always a set of twins, and always a male character who is pretty much my ideal. But looking at my old work, it is free from these mistakes, these commonalities. It was the working of a young mind just then coming into the world of writing. I wanted to explore all the possibilities, wasn’t afraid of the things I didn’t know could go wrong and so didn’t make those mistakes.
I need to learn from this – just because I know what can go wrong doesn’t mean I should be afraid of it. I shouldn’t be making the mistakes just because I now know that I can make them. If anything I should be able to recognise when I’m doing it and stop.
I love looking over my harddrive. You never know what you might find.
Chapter lengths in novels can vary greatly. Some are very short, some change in accordance with a character’s point of view. Some books don’t have official chapters at all – instead they have a star, or simply a gap which indicates that it’s a good opportunity to go to the bathroom, get a snack and replenish your tea. This can ultimately affect the text as a whole. The pace may be changed from this – a barrage of short chapters may skip quickly through time, where one hefty chapter of several thousand words can be a long hard slog in which a large chunk of detail can be put across without breaking the flow of the action.
But how important are chapter lengths?
Does it make a difference for you?
I find when I write that I can be ploughing through, constructing conversations, building suspense, creating action. And then suddenly it’ll occur to me that my writing is automatically stopping itself. I’ll find myself drawing naturally to a conclusion where the chapter will come to a natural end. This tends to be around 1,200-2,000 words, depending on how much action I decided to put into the first half of the chapter. If I’ve included a lot, I tend to write a bit more so as to bring it to a natural stop. Likewise if the point of the chapter is character development, or building relationships, it may be a shorter chapter focused around a single conversation that doesn’t last long, but forms a path for the next piece of action to go down.
Yet despite this, I find some people writing very long chapters all the time. This can go either way, in my opinion. Sometimes, if a chapter is interesting and captivating enough to make you want to read in one sitting, it’s a good idea to let it run on. But it’s also true then that if a chapter is really going nowhere, yet keeps going and keeps going, but you know you should finish it before you put it down for a rest, it can be relentless. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that long chapters can sometimes be painful.
I recently chose to start a new novella for the purpose of a competition I heard about online (link in an earlier post, Project Spotlight #3, for anyone interested). I decided there would be four main characters and that each chapter would cycle between them. I started with an introductory chapter cycle where we meet each character on a specific day to see how different their lives were. But, in writing the first of the series, for my character Damien Lethe, I found it was only 820 words long when I drew it to a close. Is this a good idea? Maybe short paragraphs of condensed action into short chapters is a good place to start, but I’ve never written a chapter this short before.
What do you think? Long or short chapters to start with? When you first pick up a book, would you rather have a few shorter chapters or longer chapters?
Love to write creatively?
Want to earn money for it? Or want to get published?
Then come on down!
No, seriously. My university is amazing and have recently handed out a bunch of links to websites looking for creative writers. Some have deadlines, some don’t. Some have cash prizes, some have publication prizes. Some have entry fees, some do not.
Project Spotlight #3 is to draw attention to, and celebrate, creative writing opportunities. In particular, the ones open now. Now me, I love a good creative writing competition. I have had a number of poetry submitted and received for publication, and while perhaps only small time, at least it’s some time. I don’t mean to brag – who am I kidding? I totally mean to brag – but I’ve had the following poetry published:
‘The Dream’ into PoP, aged 12.
‘Traveling Tide’ into somewhere I can’t remember the name of, aged probably 13.
‘Claustrophobia’ into somewhere else I can’t remember the name of, aged 16.
‘Vampire Me’ into Young Writers, aged 18 (only just made it before I was to old to enter).
I’m rather proud of my achievements, even if I have a memory like a sieve that’s let out the names of some of the places I entered. Although, I would be lying if I said I remember all of the poems I wrote. I had only one copy of ‘Traveling Tide’ that I gave to my teacher to look at. She liked it and so sent it off for me. I never saw it again. I know it was good for a thirteen year old, but I wouldn’t know. I can vaguely remember something along the lines of standing on the shore watching the boat leave with everyone but me, feeling all alone because they’d left me for better things, but turning around and seeing others like me standing on the beach, and we turned and walked away together. In theory it was probably cool, but I don’t remember the words.
Anyhow! Here are the links to the competitions. Check them out if you want to have a look. I assume they are all open to anyone, however I must say I haven’t looked too closely at them all. Have a look, and hopefully you’ll find something interesting.
Short Fiction Story Prize – Deadline of January 1st – March 31st.
Writing for Radio – Opening Lines – Deadline of January 6th – February 14th
Dead Ink – Call for Reviewers – Deadline of February 1st
Personally, I’m thinking I might enter the Short Fiction and Modern Dreams competitions. I’m no good at reviews and wouldn’t be any cop at radio. I have a few short stories up my sleeve, and for £10 you can enter two stories and get a free issue. Modern Dreams may be a challenge, but I like creative challenges. It’s a novella with specific guidelines – apologies to anyone not in Britain as, though I believe you can enter from anywhere, it must be set in inner-city Britain.
Good luck, and have fun.
Write on, folks.