Category Archives: Editing

Talk Talk

In my last post I wrote about the first problem the editor I hired had encountered with my manuscript. This was all to do with the target audience, and how I was a bit, well… off target with it. You can read about that here.

For the second in this series of blog posts, post professional edit, I’m going to talk about…well…talking – or rather dialogue – and how this impacted on my manuscript feedback.

Talk Talk. 

Anyone who knows me knows I am a bit of a chatterbox, and that most of what I say is long winded. I am verbose. I know I am. I use twenty words in the place of one, and if retelling a story of an event I go off at more tangents than Steve Davis playing at The Crucible. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you’ll know this verbosity extends into my writing too.

So why should this be any different in my fiction writing? Well surprise surprise, it wasn’t! Although the editor’s criticism wasn’t as broad as stating I was verbose or even that the manuscript was too long. No, the problem stemmed it seemed from my use of dialogue. The sheer volume of conversations my characters were having which didn’t do much of the following:

  1. Reveal Character
  2. Propel the Plot Forward (this was the key problem)
  3. Set the tone of the Story (or the scene)
  4. and Reveal Off-screen Information

(I have taken this list from Drew Chial’s most recent blog post: “What first dates can teach you about writing dialogue.” Give it a read if you are starting out in writing. There are some useful tips and hints here which I’ll be bearing in mind for my re-writes.)

So back to the problem with my use of dialogue which my editor highlighted for me.

Most telling was the fact she said: “While dialogue is important to bring scenes to life, you seem to over-rely on dialogue in the place of action, and it seems to me this might be because you’re more confident in your dialogue than your action writing.”

Well, quite. Yes, I am probably more confident writing dialogue simply because I’m one of those verbose, wordy people rather than a woman of much action. I have always held words in higher esteem than actions, despite the fact that I do now (with the grace of age and wisdom) recognise that actions speak louder than words. But it doesn’t surprise me one iota that this particular aspect came out as a criticism.

“Much of the novel is taken up with character dialogue” (I think I held a misconception this was the best way to show character and move plot forward!) “often where characters are musing on events that have happened or may happen, or what they should do next.”

Obviously this over-reliance on dialogue creates a problem with pace, but more than that it means the story isn’t moving forward.

This comment was then followed by a hilarious – I couldn’t help but laugh- chapter by chapter synopsis, highlighting exactly where the novel wasn’t going and it was all down to my over-reliance on dialogue. Although hilarious, it was also difficult to read and digest at first. It meant pretty much everything I’d written was pointless. Well it felt that way then.

Eventually though, once I had digested this part of the edit, I was bowled over by her astuteness in realising that my over-reliance on dialogue  is because I do find it easier to write than action. I find it easier to think about how characters will speak and what they will say in a situation than what they would do. I find it easier to show who my characters are this way. Why I have this bias, I’m not entirely sure. It’s odd though, because I see so many writers saying they struggle with writing dialogue and then here’s me with too much of the stuff, but which unfortunately is surplus to requirements. (It makes me wonder whether I should write scripts instead of trying a novel! I’ve always enjoyed writing plays and assemblies for school in the past. As dialogue is key there, I wonder if I’ve taken too much of that into novel writing? Hmmmmmmmmmm.)

So, anyway, I was very conscious of working on this problem in my new version of the story. But guess what? In the first few drafts of the first few chapters I found myself falling back on developing the characters through dialogue! Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgh!

However, this time I’m at least aware of my tendency to do this, so I am able to fix it and work away from that now. I am currently tightening up and working on writing more ‘action’ or at least getting to know the characters through what they do/how they react rather than solely relying on what they say.

Of course dialogue remains a useful and necessary tool to writers to help propel plot forward, to reveal character or ‘off-screen’ information and to set the tone. However what I’ve learnt from this is, there are other ways to do those things too and I need to work on mixing those up a bit more in this new version.

Coming up in future posts: the problem with pace; inconsistency in character; point of view; showing not telling and…The big one: (lack of) Narrative Structure.

Yes, you may be beginning to see why I am still a novice and why a complete re-working of the original idea was necessary!

Until next time… 🙂

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Target Audience

It’s been a while…but, yes I’m back.

Why the silence? Well many reasons, but mainly because I’ve been beavering away on a total re-write of my book, which will no longer be entitled Prophecy of Innocence.

If you recall I paid out quite a few hundred pounds to have a professional edit done on the book which I had been writing for 4 years. My epic ‘children’s’ fantasy tale, Prophecy of Innocence. I’d also written the second in the three volume novel, though this was not sent for editorial feedback.

I have spent the past month and a half having to totally re-think my approach and I thought the best way to update on this (as this blog is all about this writing journey) is to take all the editorial points in hand and talk about how I’m tackling each one in a series of short posts. So here’s the first:

Target Audience.

I paid for an editorial for two reasons. One I have never had any specific writing training. None. I started writing this book simply because I had an idea once upon a time. Also because I wanted to have it published, whether that be by a professional publisher or by myself. But I needed to have professional opinion on it, and so that is what I sought. I am glad I did, despite the initial gut-wrenching desire to throw in the towel and give up!

So, I thought Prophecy was definitely a children’s story and I stood by it as such. I ‘sold’ it as such and the edit was done bearing in mind I’d said it was for middle grade readers.

And therein lay my first problem.

The story I had written had a bunch of stuff in it that middle grade readers wouldn’t be remotely interested in.  Hard punch to take when you work with said demographic on a daily basis!

I hadn’t written specifically enough for my target audience. Although the editor acknowledged there was “much about the novel suitable for the middle grade reader”  it seemed that there were more things which were not than were!

Here are some of the points made:

  • “There’s a lot within it that isn’t necessarily suitable for the MG audience  and much of the novel is concerned with adult characters and their journeys – again not ideal.”
  • “While the beginning is wonderfully dramatic, especially chapter three and the destruction of the factory, so much death isn’t appropriate for your intended readership.” Ooops! (Though I’d argue and point out it was of generic non important characters as a whole and not detailed in descriptive gore!)
  • “For me the title Prophecy of Innocence doesn’t sound like an MG book title, and I don’t believe it will reach out to your audience in the way that it should. It sounds very old – adult- in fact.” Yes, novice writers out there if you pay for an edit be prepared for harsh truths! My new novel has no title as yet… 🙂
  • “The story becomes focussed on romance and marriage.” (Guilty as charged, your honour!)
  • “Toddington’s job – running a factory – makes him seem adult and therefore the reader will probably struggle to engage with him and his experiences.”
  • Summing up: “I wonder if you’ve allowed the story to get carried away with itself, and forgotten your audience in the process.” (And there, dear reader is a lesson in plotting and planning instead of pantsing your way through a novel! Though in my defence I did just start writing this for fun. I never had any ambition much at first to be published, so I just wrote a story and enjoyed it.)

Now I could have taken the view that okay, I could just re-write it based on the other editing points for a YA audience to whom some of these themes would be more suited. However, it wasn’t that simple. All the things wrong with my novice writing attempt tie in together and so I didn’t feel this was the best course of action, though I did consider it.

So what did I do? Well once I’d ironed out a few of the other issues which didn’t work with the book, I set about firstly having my main character as a contemporary child rather than one of (or a few of ) the elflings underground. Basically, I changed main character and viewpoint  and this made me focus much more on being the child. This isn’t an entirely new idea as Book 3 was due to fast forward to the modern age and some contemporary child characters. I guess what I’ve been doing for 4 years is writing an origins story. A history book!)

Then I have been reading lots and lots of Roald Dahl and David Walliams books to my nephew. Not that I am writing humour, you understand, but actually it’s no good me reading only my adult books (not that kind!) if I’m writing for children. I needed to get a grip on how to write for this audience as really I’d never properly considered it before other than in a very vague, generic way.

Secondly I interviewed some ten  and eleven year old girls and boys at the school I work at to find out if my main character needed to be a boy or a girl. This sounds ridiculous. Surely I should know, but there were a lot of things in my plot that I needed to know how boys react versus girls to certain situations. I also had a voice in my head and needed to see who fit it best. Then I wanted to find out about how they behave generally, what are their motivations, what do they do in their spare time, what kind of language do they use, because the type of colloquialisms I used at eleven are not going to be the same 30 years on.

So I did that and that has helped no end in thinking about how my main character reacts to certain events which I’d already plotted out.

Then I wrote the first three chapters in the first person so I could really get inside the child character’s head. This is something the editor suggested I do to help me with viewpoint and sticking with one. I have since changed it to third person (as I prefer this for the type of story I have) but it did really work for me. It might sound laborious, but it isn’t as though I need to do it for the whole book. I might still dabble into it if I have problems later on, but for now I am happy I am in one head. (I will talk about my problems with viewpoint in another post!)

And since then I have simply been writing and playing around with and re-writing and re-writing the first  four chapters and getting to know the two main characters so far.

I’ve also forgotten about aiming to be published. For now. I’ve decided I just want to learn more about the art of crafting a good novel. Maybe joining a writing group/course would be best for this, but I don’t think those types of things are really for me. It’s more fun finding out for yourself and trying different things.

As well as this I’ve also started plotting rather than pantsing! And I’ll talk about this in my next post.

What about your own experiences as a novice novelist? What problems have you encountered/did you encounter and how have you/how did you fixed them? I’d love to hear any thoughts from both novices and those with more experience!

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

 

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30 Days ’til 40 #8

This one comes with a deep breath and is actually related to what this blog was set up for in the first place…to write about my writing journey… So, today on October 8th we have…

#8: I paid for a Professional Edit on my first novel.

When I started writing this children’s novel 4 years ago I had not a Scooby Doo what I was doing. 4 years, 174 million re-writes and edits later, and now a professional eye cast over the work, it seems I still don’t have a clue.

I am pleased I paid for a professional edit, very pleased, because I could have continued to flounder around in the dark writing more aimless rubbish. I haven’t written a great book. I knew that anyway, even without an edit, but I desperately needed to know what and how to fix it. Every single thing the editor I hired has put in the report I received back today, is absolutely spot on and so I am for that extremely pleased to have invested my £600.

However, it’s only an investment if I do now continue to work on it and aim to be published, surely? None of the outcome of the edit or my thoughts around it alters the fact though that I have been an amateur about all this for too long. Writing has been a hobby and I wonder really if I am cut out to be a writer of fiction novels at all any way. There must be a reason I became a teacher not a writer.

Firstly I think this because I only have one real idea and even that one has taken me years to get so completely and utterly wrong.

I may sound disheartened or negative, but I’m not especially. I just know I am going to have to do a hell of a lot of work and scrapping and re-plotting to get the past 4 years work like anything up to scratch, (and even then I might not get it right) and so I wonder if it is worth it. I wonder if I should just leave novel writing to the likes of Matt Haig and Rick Riorden. To those who actually have a talent for it. Let’s face it there’s enough shite out there without my trying to compete.

But…I love working on this story. I love the story, I love the characters.

I guess the real decision is: Do I just want to write my story and keep it for me? Or do I really want to be published as I once thought was what I wanted?

The main issues at the moment are: its suitability in some of its themes and characters for middle grade readership, and that I don’t have a strong plot driver in volume one.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Right now, there’s a huge mountain to climb and I feel a little overwhelmed by it.

However, I do need a goal as I enter into my next decade…so perhaps I need to knuckle down and get serious.

Watch this space…

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Character Count

Another post about her writing journey? Really? What’s come over her?

Yes, folks, don’t change the channel. I know I haven’t done a rant for a few weeks, but you know, this blog is called Writeaway so I do feel a little as though I am false advertising at times.

Anyway, for those of you who have followed this blog for sometime, you will know all the headaches and doubts I have about my novel in progress, as well as the great things I love about it. (Yes, I do; remember the A-Z from last year? There you go.)

You may also be aware that I consider myself to be a plot driven writer, rather than a character driven writer. Many blogs and writers will tell you this is the way to doom and unpublishable work, because if a reader can’t identify and root for the character they can’t give a damn about the plot. I’d agree with this (but only to a certain extent). I would argue there are plenty of adults who don’t worry about either so much. I haven’t read 50 Shades, but from what I can gather, neither the characters or the plot stand up too well, yet look at its success. Hmmmm. That old chestnut, hey?

So as always with writing and with regards to writing my own novel I have to put the blinkers on from time to time and not heed all the ‘rules’ and ‘advice’. As I’ve often said: yes, there are certain rules which need to be adhered to, but essentially I need to write what I feel is in me, and it so happens that my characters are not, as so many writers profess, “speaking to me in my head” or “taking over my life,” whilst I am trying to go about my daily business.  They are just not. It was in a previous post entitled “Losing the Plot” that I talked about this. I think of a plot first and characters come only when I start writing dialogue on the page. That’s just how it is for me, right or wrong, we shall see. It is why I have to ignore social media most of the time because there are a lot of writers out there spouting their advice as though it were gospel, and as any atheist will argue, that’s a load of tosh as well.

So, today I was turning over in my head what my editor may say about my characters (other than “why are they all named after motorway service stations or mash-ups of UK place names?”),  and thinking more so with regard to the question do the characters drive the plot or does the plot drive the characters? And then I stopped questioning myself and thought…”You know what, I don’t care, I’m just going to blog my thoughts on this subject.”

And this got me to  thinking about all the books I loved as a child and how plot won me over every time.

1) The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. Most of the characters got right up my nose actually. Other than the White Witch and Edmund. Lucy was sappy, Susan and Peter as dull as ditch-water, talking Beavers and a fawning Fawn. Then there was Aslan and well, he was just a lion who sacrificed himself. That book was all about plot (and God and Jesus and stuff, not that I got that from it at all when I was ten)! But I don’t think CS Lewis spent an awful lot of time drawing his characters out. I could be wrong, but what I loved about that book (and The Magician’s Nephew – more so actually) was the plot. The story and the way it developed. Just the simple notion there was another land through a wardrobe or pools of water in woods or by putting on a magical ring. Cool.

2) Anything by Enid Blyton: Oh come on. The Famous Five? The Secret Seven? Plot, plot and more plot. The mystery was what kept me reading, not Dick or George or er…who were the other ones again? The Naughtiest Girl in The School only had me hooked because I wanted to go to boarding school and have a tuck box and go to the shop to buy stamps and write letters home. Elizabeth could have been Alfred for all I cared.

3) All Fairy Tales. All of them. Generic characters with the odd baddy to spice it up. (Rumplestiltskin anyone?) Why is it only the baddies who were any fun or actually the ones who drove the plot forward? (Incidentally, I worried that my antagonist is the one who drives the plot forward in Book 2 as oppose to Toddington. I’ll wait for the back lash on that little piece of literary rule breaking and rebellion, but as I’m, essentially, writing a fancy, long fairy tale, I think I’m going to just have the guts and conviction to go with it.)

4) I’d even go as far as to say Harry Potter himself is not the character who kept me reading that particular series of books. Professor Snape? Yes. Ron and Hermione? Yes. Wanting to find out out what magic spell they’d all learn next? Yes. Harry was, for me, quite bland, and although I cared about him a bit, it was more that I cared for the wizarding world and the effect Voldemort had on that and how they were all going to collectively defeat him. All the little plot twists and turns around Snape actually engaged me more than the main plot. And actually Voldemort’s back story was far more riveting than Harry’s.

But not only as a child has this been the case. As an adult I’ve enjoyed Agatha Christie novels and we know how her characters (at least the secondary ones) get accused of being two dimensional. Murder mysteries are, by nature, plot driven. It is the whodunnit? which keeps us reading, rather than the characters, I’d say anyway. I mean her detectives are engaging of course, and Poirot is my favourite, but Christie had plots first it seems, then character.

Then I got to thinking about stuff my little boy has read or is reading. He’s heavily into Roald Dahl at the moment and I’d say his books go on a 50/50 scale, including his short stories for adults. Tales of The Unexpected…very plot driven. Of course he does write some wonderful characters too…The children in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, and Willy Wonka and The Grand High Witch. Miss Trunchbull. All fantastic characters.The BFG too is a great character, but I wouldn’t say all of his stories have great main characters. Danny in Danny The Champion of the World is for me, quite dull, yet I love the story itself.  Dahl actually is billed as “The World’s Number One story teller” and I think it is the stories and their plots which engage children most. The idea of winning a chocolate factory? Or of turning ducks into people and vice versa? The idea of a man who can see through playing cards to win a fortune and how he goes about it. It is Dahl’s “what ifs?” which engaged me over the characters (although obviously mainly very well drawn).  I certainly know the idea of The Witches all being teachers in disguise was just perfect! Oh and speaking of Roald Dahl. We’re reading The BFG at the moment and Dahl uses the “was  ….ing” thing LOADS instead of ed verbs. So quite frankly, I really, really, really won’t be listening to much of these “writing tips” anymore. It seems one sure fire way to lose your style and voice.

Also my little boy loves these books called “Dinosaur Cove” by an author called Rex Stone. They are typical chapter books for the 6+ age range, but oh! The amount of adverbs is akin to the number of hot dinners I’ve had and the two main characters are completely indistinguishable from each other. But my little boy LOVES them. Because, you know, dinos.  Also the plots are atrocious, but that’s what is funny. Kids will like books for all sorts of reasons that we as adults and especially us as writers baulk at!

Now, I’m not aiming for a series of ‘easy read’ chapter books or advocating the overuse of adverbs or inappropriate repetitive dialogue tags (grinned – Rex Stone, seriously too many ‘grinned Jamie, grinned the other one’) particularly as I’m writing a three volume middle grade fantasy novel. Of course I want my characters to have depth and I hope the main ones do, (because my character count currently stands at about 24 speaking characters and it’s really hard to give them ALL depth), but in all honesty, my book is not character driven. Probably because when I had the idea for the book I was twelve and had just finished reading The Narnia books. I like my characters though, but I had no idea who they were going to be until I actually started writing. Many of them just showed up half way through, unexpectedly. For Book 3, which I haven’t written yet, I need to introduce four human characters. Children. I work with children. I know children, yet I cannot plan for them at all. I don’t know what I want them to be like until I get them to meet Toddington (the main protagonist). Even Toddington had no real character to him when I first drafted. All my characters have developed as I wrote them in and found them talking. It is my idea for the plot and getting from point a to point b which drives my characters forwards and my writing, not the other way round.

And the truth seems to me, from my experience of children, is that plot is actually more important for most of them than character. That doesn’t mean you can’t have great characters, but do we need to sit and worry that every event which happens in the book is driven forward by the main character? I know in my book it isn’t. And if you watch children write a story they come up with a plot. They do. That’s how they are taught. That’s how their imagination runs. My little one wrote a story the other day. He couldn’t get all his plot ideas down quick enough, as he told me. He was so excited by the plot. It just so happened everything in the plot happened to a velociraptor named Speedey (with an ey on purpose apparently). Speedey was simply the vessel for all his plot ideas to go through. I know however, many writers say “Have a character, THEN put them in a situation, or situations.” But knowing what I do about children it seems to me, I think maybe we need to worry less about what adults think when we’re writing for children and see it from a child’s point of view. I’m not dumbing down my characters at all, I’m just saying I’m going to get ready to defend why they aren’t necessarily at the forefront of my thoughts when writing.

Yes, I am a novice and so am, no doubt, talking out of my backside. My editor will no doubt tell me a load of these things which are formulaically wrong with my book and will hate my characters for more reasons than that three syllable names are hard to pronounce. But I can’t help thinking back to those books I enjoyed as a child, and even now as an adult enjoy most. They are the ones where the plot came first. The characters have to be good, but for me they are not what comes first to my mind when reading or when writing. I do like a good story.

The End.

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To the End

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

It took me years to write, will you take a look?….”

So I was all a bit doom and gloom last week when I wrote my post on how the writing is going so far. That may be something to do with my strange, annual “I’ve now got six weeks off work” feeling that I get, which should see me dancing on the ceiling, but which invariably, as I said to one friend, sees me staring at the ceiling blankly for a couple of days instead. My brain is indeed a strange machine.

So anyway, I took a Twitter break intending for it to be for two weeks (as I figured that would be how long it would take me to get my backside into gear and finally finish the first draft of Book 2 of Prophecy of Innocence).

Turns out taking a Twitter break was a brilliant thing to do, if not excruciatingly hard for a hobbity hermit such as myself who has come to rely on it so much for contact with the outside world. Ooops. May need to rectify that. Yes, I missed it. Shocking. (I say it, I mean you all, of course.) However, the break does mean I have now finally finished the first draft of Book 2! Yay!

Near enough four years ago now, I sat down at my little Samsung net-book and typed the first words for Book 1. (No longer the first words, naturally, after a million revisions.) So it’s hard to believe  I have actually completed the second one. And the final leg only took me five writing sessions during my Twitter break to finally finish it off. (I have also had to do holiday stuff with the little one, as well as paint my hallway and lounge you understand. It’s not all been “write, write, write.” Though it just goes to show how much time I must spend on Twitter! A hem…)

However, if it wasn’t for Twitter I’d not have managed to find the editor who has agreed to work on my first manuscript. (Yes, despite my worries in my last post that she wouldn’t want to after reading the sample I sent, she emailed saying “I enjoyed reading the sample, and found the characters and set-up fascinating,” so I was worrying over nothing as usual. I’m trying to tell myself she doesn’t use the same stock phrase to all her clients. Put the cynic back in her box, Joanne.)

As I said, my editor came on recommendation from a Twitter pal who has worked with her. I spoke to her the other day, and I believe this may be the best nearly £600 I’ve ever spent. Yes, folks, an in depth editorial report with annotated manuscript does cost that much, and actually knowing how much goes into it, it’s very reasonable for the work needed. I could have gone for the cheaper less detailed edit, but I am a novice writer. It is important to learn as much as I can and take advice from the professionals, even if as my friend says “Just be prepared for your ego to take a battering.” Anyway, that’s also happening (an edit not my ego battering) and I will have the feedback around about the 12th October. (When the ego battering will take place! Happy Birthday!)

So what will I do until then? Writing wise that is? Well, I need to begin outlining Book 3. Book 3 is going to be the most complex as it will obviously be where everything comes to a climax and the whole story is finally resolved. Although in some ways this should be easy, as I know how the story ends, getting to the story’s end is always very tricky. Book 3 will also be trickier as we fast forward in time to the modern day and there will be new (human children) characters to introduce. Book 3 will in some ways be easier  as it was Book 3 which was actually the original idea for the story. Books 1 and 2 grew backwards from that idea. I guess I could actually have written Book 3 first, with hindsight, but I’m quite a linear writer – I felt the need to go back to the beginning. Anyway, there will be a lot of outlining for Book 3. There was none for Book 1 (hence why 4 years later we’re only just getting to professional edit stage). Book 2 has outlines. (Plural because the outlines have changed about a hundred times, or at least it feels like it!) Of course, I need to go back to Book 2 and begin the re-writes, but I’ll probably sit on that for a few weeks and go back to it with fresh eyes to begin that process.

Also whilst on my Twitter break I wrote a short story which I may or may not go back to. It’s an FP inspired one, but I’m not sure how much I like it. It needs work and I did it mainly just to warm up for getting back into the writing habit, so what I do with it may, in fact, be nothing.

I also recently started a draft of another children’s book I had an idea for a few weeks a go. I may well go back to that and start writing it properly, if I have enough time.

Once the editor comes back to me in October I will also have more re-writes and edits to do on Book 1, which will have a knock on effect on Book 2 and then Book 3. We will have to see how it goes. When I’m happy I will then start submitting properly to agents, if I feel that is a viable option. If not, I will look once more into self publishing, which will be an expensive business if I want to do it properly.

For those of you who think a book can be knocked out in a matter of months, or if there are first time writers out there frustrated that they are not getting anywhere, well the truth is it is a long game, as I said in my last post. It takes years, and in those years there are highs (like now) and lows (like last week when I had all the doubts one could have crowding around my brain).

As a result there is little point to asking “when are you going to be published?” because that is like asking me to answer “when will you die?” I don’t know. I can only hope I have published my book one way or another before I do die. That’s the best I can tell you.

My all means, ask how the book is going, because clearly I’m not about to be quitting on it (despite how I might feel at times)!

No, it seems now, having completed Book 2, I will indeed make it to the *end.

*Whenever the end may be 🙂

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The Long and the Short of It.

As you will know, if you are a regular visitor to the blog, I spent a fair part of 2014 writing short stories and pieces of flash fiction which included a high rate of participation in the Twitter flash writing game, Friday Phrases (FP). You can even find some of the short stories here and here if you so wish to torture yourself with a variety of pieces of fiction  which I don’t hold in particularly high regard.

Now, at the time, I enjoyed writing in this form. I guess, as I was pretty depressed for the first half of last year, writing flash fiction and shorts gave me an opportunity to carry on writing when I didn’t much feel like it. Also I needed feedback as to how my writing was developing and it felt the quickest way to achieve that.

You see, for me writing a short story is a little like the practice for the big event, the novel. Now I say ‘for me’ with good reason as I know this is not the case for a huge number of writers. Many I know in fact only write short stories or novellas and like it and are very good at it. It’s their thing.  However, it is not my thing I have discovered. This is because, when I write a short it’s usually from a ghost of an idea that flits about my mind (which does not happen nearly as frequently as perhaps it should) and then I just write it. I don’t outline, I don’t plan characters, I don’t  worry about it or have sleepless nights about it. I draft it, then I edit it and it’s done. It can feel like an accomplishment of sorts when I’ve not worked properly on my novel, but it does not satisfy me fully. Possibly because I do see them as an exercise in writing rather than something I’d aim to have published.

Now, the trouble was last year I became a little distracted by writing these short stories and flash fiction, as well as this blog and  all of those things combined only served to take me away from what I actually love working on which is my novel(s).

I have a theory as to why I became distracted. The main one being that I don’t consider to myself to be a true writer in the pure sense of the word. Simply I don’t feel a deep seated need to bleed ideas onto the page lest I die, as other writers speak of. Unless I am in a state of heart break. Which I very much was until I bled all that out in this blog post. Seems writing really does have the power to heal.

No,  the only thing I feel a need to tell is the story in my novel, and in truth, it’s the only story I have to tell. Really. All those other ideas which found their way here last year could have quite happily remained in the recesses of my mind and no one would have suffered the worst for it. Me least of all.

So whilst I was writing shorts, and blog posts, and participating in FP, my novel sat without moving off the 18,000 word count it’d been on for months and months. This bothered me of course but I justified it and comforted myself with the idea that at least I was writing. Something, anything. No matter what came out. Oh dear.

Then, without my conscious knowledge my participation  in FP began to dribble off in the final quarter of the year until, in December, it became none existent. I pondered on why this was the other day and realised it is mainly because I have no ideas.  They’ve dried up and this I put down to my not being utterly depressed and heartbroken. In February, March, April time when I was perhaps at my lowest I look through my notebook and there were perhaps six or seven Flash Fiction FPs a week. It seems, as I’ve alluded to before in another post, I need heartbreak for my emotions to really surface so that I can have the ideas to then develop further maybe when I’m not so down. My emotions are heightened and so apparently is my creativity.  (An ongoing debate which many have written about before.) This in turn meant my well for short story ideas dried up, and in all honesty I lost interest in writing shorts altogether. I have two sitting half finished in draft form, but I doubt I’ll be finishing them in a hurry.

Anyway,  with news from the publisher in mid November that they were interested in my novel and passing it onto marketing and production to make a decision, I figured I desperately needed to get back to the second book which leads on from Book One. The word count now stands at just over 53,000 which has grown from those 18,000 in early November and which had been sat at 18,000 for a good nine months previously. Not my most productive writing phase.

Getting back to the novel, really getting back into it, has made me realise this much: I much prefer writing a novel to short stories. The process that is. Despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, much harder. It is for me at least so much more enjoyable.

This then got me thinking about different writers and how they view the long and short form.

I know many people in the writing world who very much enjoy writing short stories, even prefer it to novel writing. They submit continuously to websites and magazines for publications and are sometimes successful  at being published, at other times they are not. Nevertheless, they write and write and write and seem to do little else with their spare time from their day job.

They seem to be able to write story after story after story, having so many ideas flowing from them they don’t know what to write next.

I don’t. I just don’t have that many ideas floating around in my brain. I did back in February/March/April time but generally I don’t.  Hence why I can never really consider myself a proper writer. What I do is a hobby as I have too many other things I love to do in my spare time too. My novel is, nevertheless, a hobby I hope one day to have published and be able to share with the children of the world. I have other writers being kind enough to recommend places to submit short stories and poems to or competitions to enter, but truth is, I have no real interest in this. Maybe that’s cutting my nose off to spite my face.  All these other writers who write and submit, write and submit will one day get their break. The law of probability is on their side. I’m not making it easy for myself by not doing those things too, this I know. However, I wouldn’t submit my shorts as I know they are simply not good enough. Also, maybe I just like the thought of a long hard slog on one project which I can eventually feel proud of. I’ve never felt especially proud of my short stories, (probably because they are not that great, or original) but I feel very proud of the 130,000 odd words I’ve written so far over the two novels.

On the up side though, writing shorts has helped me develop such technical skills as: showing not telling or playing around with viewpoint and structure. For me this feeds directly into my novel -the big project, the one I am passionate about. I don’t have that same passion for writing short stories. Maybe, if I’m really honest, my passion is not even for writing itself ; it is for the process of creating. I’ve created a whole world with characters and a plot and a history and timelines and maps and family trees. Writing is just the form this has taken. If I was any good at art it could have been a mural or a comic strip. I don’t know. But to perfect that form I’ve had to pay attention to the technical stuff and writing shorts and flash has indeed helped me to focus on the actual art of writing.

To my mind, and perhaps this may be controversial in writerly circles, (as I generally have no clue what I’m talking about having never attended a writer’s club, forum, support group or workshop) the process of writing a short compared to writing a novel is completely different.

When writing a novel, for example, there is more opportunity to develop characters, get to know them, play around with them, shake them up when need be. In a novel the characters drive the story, where for me in short stories it seems the plot drives the characters.  (Maybe because I’m doing it all wrong!) The characters in short stories don’t seem to do unexpected things because there is a ‘punchline’ to reach and it needs to be reached in a specific word count.

Writing a novel also means weaving multiple different threads together. So much so it can feel almost like solving a murder mystery and really gets the brain thinking. It can make it ache too, but in a good way. Weaving multiple narrative and making them meet is  a form of problem solving and it feels great when it all comes together. (Especially if you’re a bit of a pantser like me!) This feeling of accomplishment is something I have never found I gain with writing in the short form. As I say, with a short the ending presents itself like a flash of inspiration and then you run with it until you reach it. The biggest problem solving you have when writing a short story or Flash Fiction is to convey what you want to say in as few words as possible. We all know I’m verbose to the extreme, so perhaps this is why I prefer novel writing!

Now, on a personal level I do actually like reading short stories very much. I loved all Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected and other short stories when I was a teenager. He, to me, is a master in the art of short story telling, and the novella “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is one of my all time favourites. However, as a writer, they simply do not give me the same pleasure (and perhaps the same pain!) that writing a novel does.

Those light-bulb, Eureka! moments in the shower when you work out, almost subconsciously, how to fix that plot hole that’s been bugging you for months or maybe that you didn’t even know was there until a couple of characters started a conversation in your head whilst you were washing up! That is a complete thrill and once you get it written down, utterly satisfying.

Writing a novel is a marathon over the sprint of a short. It’s harder, certainly; it’s more gruelling, but the feeling when you finish it is far more exhilarating.

These are just my thoughts of course.

What do you writers think? Do you prefer the marathon or the sprint? Which process do you enjoy more?

What do you readers think? Do you prefer to read short stories, what with the busy lives we now all seem to lead, or do you prefer something you can get your teeth into?

I’d be happy to hear your thoughts in the comments box below. 🙂

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

 

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Filed under Designing, Editing, Plot Development, Publishing, Writing

Separate the Fiction from the Fact.

Currently on sabbatical from my WIP, I’ve written a new ‘short’ story (short as in at around 8000 it’s less than 10,000 words, but not as short as I originally intended).

Here it is

Instinct

“I lit the match, I lit the match
I saw another monster turn to ash.
Felt the burden lifting from my back.”

 

Instinct, a sixth sense, feminine intuition, call it what you will, but whatever it is I was certain the day Carl moved in next door, five years ago to the day, that my life was about to change. And not for the better.

I’d found my sleep prematurely disturbed around 9am on that sunlit Saturday morning in May by the guttural throttle of a car with one too many exhausts. Groggy from a hangover induced by too many gin and tonics the night before, I lurched out of bed. Dragging the duvet with me, I stumbled to the window and, in a well-practised move, lifted the flimsy venetian blind just enough to peak underneath it without been observed by those I was observing. The words of Simon, my work colleague and best friend since as long as I could remember, momentarily whispered to me as I peered through squinted eyes to the pavement below. “You’re like an old busybody Helen, always spying on people. What exactly do you expect to see?”

“Nothing, and everything,” was always my answer. Usually nothing, but it had become habit now. “You never know what you might see.”

And on this morning, I found my snooping finally validated.

The revving engine emanated from one of two cars which I saw parked outside below my front bedroom window. They were positioned back to back, both boots open, both half suspended over the kerb and one hanging across my own driveway.

The nerve.

Hunched over a tomato-red, souped-up 1989 Ford Escort, I saw Carl for the first time. No more than twenty-two years of age, his closely shaven head reflected the mid-morning sun. His baggy jeans hung dangerously low around his skinny frame revealing, not only the waistband of his underpants but, a typically English pale posterior. As he delved into the back of the Escort’s boot and retrieved something from the recesses, the too small, faded striped T-shirt he wore rode up his back to reveal a tattoo depicting crossed swords stamped just above the coccyx and displayed with pride.

Never a good sign.

A second man stood with his back to me between the Escort and an equally bright red, twin-exhausted Vauxhall Astra. Like Carl, he had the same low slung jeans which revealed too much underwear to be considered decent in public, but unlike Carl, his head was covered by a baseball cap, worn the wrong way round, no doubt to keep his pasty, freckly skin from burning in the sun.

Rooted to the spot, but being careful not to disturb the blinds any further, I watched Carl shift his eyes from side to side and then swiftly hand the package he had retrieved from his boot to the man in the baseball cap. Not wanting to draw any attention in the direction of my window, I hardly dared move as I tried to catch a glimpse of what Carl had in his hands. However, much to my annoyance, the second man, upon receiving the parcel, threw the package into the Astra’s boot and quickly slammed it shut. The engine of the Astra continued to turn over as the two men briefly exchanged fist bumps.  The next minute the second man had jumped into the Astra and sped off, tyres screeching as he reached the bend at the top of the road and performed a hand brake turn before careering back past Carl, blasting the horn as he went. Carl began unloading various boxes from his boot but by then I’d seen enough and I released the blind’s cord blocking the morning sun and Carl from view. My bladder called to be emptied and I only had one thought as I flung off the duvet and made for the bathroom. DrugsThey’ve just passed drugs to each other. For fuck’s sake, my new neighbour is a drug dealer.

*

“You can’t assume that just because he has a skinhead, a tattoo and his jeans are halfway to his ankles that he’s dealing,” Simon had looked at me with that knowing smirk he has when I say something he knows to be utterly ridiculous.

“What about the twin-exhaust, made to measure spoiler and ‘phat’ subwoofers thumping gangsta’ rap music out day in day out?” I argued, slamming my coffee cup down as though it were my trump card. The liquid splashed over the side and dripped down the Starbucks logo and onto my hand, scalding my knuckle.

“Damn!” I shook my hand and licked the sticky liquid from around the cup. Simon rolled his eyes.

“It still doesn’t make him a drug dealer, just a dick who looks out of place in the suburbs.”  Simon slowly sipped his cappuccino, taking deliberate care not to create a second moustache above his lip. “You know you really shouldn’t be so judgemental. You had the last one down as a private escort for crying out loud and I’ll bet she was just unlucky in love.”

“Woah, now hold on! She had a different bloke round that house every weekend!” I protested.

I’d been rather looking forward to having a new neighbour ever since the last one had decided to move on. Not that Marie had ever been a problem as such. Nevertheless her antics had caused me to partake in far too much curtain twitching than was healthy for a twenty-something single woman. The comings and goings of various ‘gentlemen’ each weekend had fuelled my curiosity far more than it should have done about a woman I only knew by name because I’d once taken a parcel in for her. Even that had aroused my inquisitiveness when I noticed the package was from Amsterdam. I couldn’t help putting two and two together and, in Simon’s words, “coming up with sex.”  So when she had put the house up for sale last December, and then when the sold sign was erected in March, I can’t say I was too disappointed. Perhaps, I had thought hopefully, I’ll get someone living next door who doesn’t cause me to be such a snooping busy body and one who isn’t participating in solicitous liaisons for payment on the other side of the paper-thin walls. But now what did I have? A drug dealing chav with the worst taste in music anyone could possibly possess? Great.

I drained what was left of my latte and rested my chin on my hands. I stared at Simon as he dabbed his mouth with the paper napkin taking utmost care not to actually wipe with the Starbucks logo, his bright green eyes fully focused on the task. Simon Tahler, always so calm and in control and sensible.

“So what do I do?” I asked, hopeful of some wondrous words of wisdom from my stalwart.

“What you always do,” he replied without looking up. “Watch him.”

*

Weeks turned to months and as Carl settled in, so too did the rituals which would prove to slowly drive me insane. The loud music which vibrated through the walls at 1am some nights soon became enough to drive me up those very same walls. The fact Carl clearly had no social conscience in this regard only served to compound in my mind that my initial appraisal of him being a low-life, good for nothing, drug dealer was the correct one and that Simon was being, as usual, far too benevolent. Carl not only disturbed my sleep with his never-ending playlist of the worst rap music the world had to offer, but also felt it perfectly acceptable to drink cans of Heineken in the middle of the day on the street, whilst taking his car apart, gunning the engine and polluting the air with the same ‘music’ thumping through the subwoofers. Then, inebriated, he’d razz it around the estate – those twin exhausts spluttering and roaring into life, together with the bass emanating from the speakers contaminating what once had been a quiet street where would-be female escorts could go about their business undisturbed.

“You should report him to the police,” suggested Simon one night when I, at the end of my tether, had called him, desperate for someone to understand what I was having to endure.

“But how can I?” I moaned down the phone which was cradled between my shoulder and my chin as I shuffled closer to the window to get a better look at what Carl was up to that particular evening.  “He’s my neighbour.”

“If he’s drink driving as you say, then you have every right, not to mention responsibility, to inform the police.” Simon sighed.

I could tell he’d be pursing his lips in annoyance. Carl was all we seemed to talk about these days.

“But what if he finds out it was me who grassed him up?” I was practically pouting; a child looking to a parent for the solution. “Besides which,” I gave Simon no time to answer with something sober and sensible. “They’d have to catch him at it red-handed, and you know how slow the police are to respond unless you’re being held at gunpoint. By the time they’d arrive, he’d be tucked up in bed fast asleep.”

To me there just seemed no practical solution without making the situation worse. The man had hit my life like a hurricane and there was nothing I could do.

“Did you get in touch with the council about the late night noise?” Simon changed tack, knowing instinctively when he was in a no-win situation with my lack of logic and reasoning.

“Hmmmm. I did actually,” I conceded. “Though how much good it’ll do, I don’t know.  They’ve told me to keep a diary over the next month and if it continues then to submit it. They have apparently threatened him via letter that they will confiscate his stereo equipment if he persists in playing it at high volume after 11pm; seems they have the power to do that.”

“Well that’s something at least.”

Simon yawned.

“Oh I’m sorry, am I keeping you awake? I thought it was me who was suffering from sleep deprivation due to the fact it’s me who has a loon for a next door neighbour!”

“No you’re not, but Helen, there are times I feel as though I live next door to him, you go on about him that much,” Simon retaliated.

“Well that’s just -“   I had no words. I felt so tired from it all. From nearly a year of living next door to the most inconsiderate person I’d ever had the misfortune to happen upon.

I banged the receiver down and Simon, quite rightly I supposed, didn’t call or speak to me at work for a week.

*

 “You are definitely going to have to report him to the police for this,” said Simon, as he surveyed the damage to my front lawn one Saturday afternoon a couple of months later. “It’s more than likely classed as criminal damage. Finally you might just get him for something concrete. You saw him do it after all, which makes you a witness.” Simon almost seemed relieved that this latest incident had happened.

The same niggling thought that I would still have to live next door to Carl if I reported him to the police, and what the repercussions might be, worried me greatly. I hesitated.

“Do you really think it’d be for the best?”

“Yes, Helen, I do. You can’t let him get away with it. Otherwise what’s next? He’ll only carry on, believing he is invincible and has the right to do as he pleases. No consequences. He has to know there are consequences.”

I knew deep down Simon was right. This time, Carl had left carnage in his wake. He had destroyed living things on my property. He’d crossed the line and made it personal. Yes, I thought.  The bastard would get all that was due to him. The thoughtless act of thumping bass at midnight was one thing, mindless acts of vandalism on my property was quite another. My home is my castle. The anger welled up inside. I wanted retribution. For everything from the past year. I found myself incensed enough to snatch up the phone and finally take Simon’s advice.

*

 I was pleasantly surprised, at the speed in which the local constabulary descended on my doorstep. It turned out that Carl Waters was very well-known to them and it seemed they’d had plenty of complaints about his musical midnight mischief.

“You see the damage he’s done?” I pressed on to the female constable who crouched next to the decimated dahlias, inspecting the ground.

“I suggest you take a photograph of the damage as evidence,” she said, as she took a notebook from her top pocket. “And you say he did this just a few hours ago?”

“Yes! And if it hadn’t have been for the fact I was coming down my stairs and saw him, through the glass in the front door, actually drive that clapped out heap of junk he calls a car over my garden, I’d never have believed it happened.”

“Right, well given that you saw it, I suggest we have a friendly word with Mr Waters and make it clear he offers to pay for your plants to be replaced so that this has to go no further. Does that allay your fears concerning talking to us Miss Shaw?”

“Yes… I think so,” I stammered and looked at Simon for reassurance. He glanced at the officer and fixed her with his piercing green eyes.

“I can assure you Miss Shaw, we will handle the situation delicately – given that you are neighbours,” the constable said scribbling into her notebook. “And please, don’t hesitate to contact us on this number should you have any more difficulties in the future with our friend Mr Waters.” She tore the piece of paper she had written on from her notebook and handed it to me. She returned the pad to her top pocket and gave Simon a small nod before retrieving her hat and leaving.

“See,” said Simon, unable to hide his smugness, once the PC returned to her colleague outside.  “I told you there was nothing to be concerned about. He’d have not known it was you making calls to the police about the noise if you had have done so; she said everyone’s been doing it.”

“That’s as maybe, but he’ll know it’s me who’s made this one, for damned sure.” I looked out at my destroyed flowerbed and sighed.

“You had to do it Helen. He can’t be allowed to just carry on doing as he pleases, living just outside the law. He’s like the bully who never gets caught in the act or who everyone’s too scared of retribution to do anything about it. But you’re not at school anymore.  This time he might just get some form of comeuppance, and it’ll serve him right. ”

Once again, I  knew Simon was right, but knowing we had the moral high ground didn’t stop the  knot which was forming in my stomach or the feeling of dread which descended on me that I’d just destroyed any hope of a peaceful life, once and for all.

*

When there was a knock at the door later that evening I knew who it would be.

Sure enough, Carl stood there, slouched on the doorpost as though he owned it. He smiled when I answered the door. Not a gesture I’d expected from someone I’d reported to the police that afternoon.

“Sorry about your plants,” he started. “I’ll pay for the damage.”

Admittedly it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated from a drug-dealing, drunk-driving, plant wrecking hoodlum but people can surprise you I supposed. Taken aback, I raised my eyebrows at him, unable to find any words. He made my skin crawl. His beady, black eyes bored into me. Why is he pretending to be so nice? There has to be a catch.

“If you like, I’ll buy some new shrubs and plant them for you?” He added, clearly thrown by my silent stance and he shrugged as he said the words. “Really, it’s no biggie.” A cigarette balanced precariously behind his ear and he jangled his keys to and fro between each hand.

“Oh, that’s er… good of you,” I heard myself say without a trace of sarcasm coming out. I inwardly cursed myself for being so Simon-esque about the whole thing. What I actually wanted to say was: “I should damn well think so, what the hell do you think you were doing driving over my lawn and flower beds you crazy lunatic?”

I didn’t have time to ask the question before Carl started rambling through some excuse of a story about needing to visit his mother in hospital in  a rush and not been able to move the car which had been blocking his drive.

You’re lying, I automatically thought. Mainly because his eyes shifted from me to the road one too many times. You could have moved the other car. It’s your brother’s and he was at the house. I knew that much. However, as he’d offered to recompense me for the damage, and as I had to continue living next door to him I begrudgingly decided to let it go and said no more. Instead I nodded feigned sympathy for his fabricated sob story.

“So we’re good then?” Carl mumbled before he sloped off back towards his own front door, his jeans, as always, precariously hanging below his pelvis.

My weak response was in the affirmative. After all what else could I do?

*

I was woken abruptly at 4am by the sound of shuffling and scraping.

Blasted cats. I lay still for a few more moments listening.

Wait, that doesn’t sound like a cat.

The noise persisted. Annoyed at whatever had disturbed my sleep at such an ungodly hour, I tumbled out of bed and yanked at the cord of the blind, hoisting the venetians up in one swift movement.

“What the-?”

I had to do a double take. It certainly was not a cat. It wasn’t even a fox.

Below my window, kneeling down on my lawn, a can of Heineken propped next to his skinny body, was Carl.

No, he couldn’t be doing what he was doing… could he? Uh uh. No. I must be seeing things.

I squinted and peered into the lamplight which illuminated the strange nocturnal scene before me.

No, I thought again. He’s not… planting flowers into my flower bed? At four o’clock in the morning? Surely not?  I pressed my face to the glass and placed my hands close to block out the reflection from the street light.

The nutter! He is! He actually is.

I glared down at him through the glass, watching him open-mouthed. Gravel and stones were strewn everywhere. He rocked from side to side and whistled a tuneless tune. He didn’t appear to have any form of gardening tools with which to dig and instead scraped back the gravel covered compost with his bare hands. More gravel and stones flew into the air and it was then that I noticed a hole in the lawn. An actual hole in my lawn. Furious, I flung the window wide open and the warm night air hit me.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” I shouted down, completely unconcerned with the fact it was 4am and that someone might hear me.

Carl staggered to his feet and raised his can up to me as if to say “cheers.”

“I’m replacing your plants,” he smirked, evidently pleased with himself. “I said would.”

“That was fucking eighteen months ago!” I screamed at him. “You fucking nutter! Who the hell starts planting fucking flowers in the dark at four in the morning? I’m trying to sleep. For fuck’s sake.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” he slurred. “There’s no need to swear. I thought you’d be pleased.”

I was actually, for once in my life, speechless. Wait until I tell Simon THISI knew it. I knew I should have trusted my instincts. I knew he was a low-life, good-for-nothing from the first day I clapped eyes on him and this just proved it.

“Get off my fucking property!” I yelled and slammed the window shut before releasing the blind. I climbed back into bed, shaking, unable to even comprehend what I’d just witnessed.

I lay there listening, my heart pounding, until a few minutes later I heard Carl’s door lock click. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to return to sleep but it was no use. I was seething.

Eighteen months! Eighteen months and now he chooses to replace the plants! What kind of weirdo am I living next to? I couldn’t help but think that revenge is indeed a dish served best cold. Was this his idea of revenge or a joke?  

I lay there turning this new development over in my head.

Here was my next door neighbour, in the middle of the night, replacing plants which he’d destroyed a full eighteen months before. It made no sense. I just couldn’t fathom what would possess him to this latest act of madness. Revenge, subtle and planned was all I could think had driven him to the act.

When I did eventually drift off to sleep my dreams turned to nightmares involving Carl knocking a hole between the walls of our houses and then taking possession of my half, declaring it as his own and me becoming his prisoner.

I woke again, wearier than I’d ever felt before.

When I went out early the next morning to survey the damage the reality of what I’d witnessed only became more surreal.

To begin with, Carl had not planted the flowers at all. Instead they were shoved haphazardly into the ground, roots exposed and stalks bent and broken. Most of the flower heads were either damaged or dead and others were covered in soil.  On closer inspection, I deduced that these perhaps were not even plants which had been bought or acquired by any usual means. Rather, it appeared, they had been pulled up from elsewhere. A further investigation of the neighbourhood confirmed my suspicions. As unlikely as it seemed, Carl had uprooted plants from various neighbour’s beds and set about planting them in mine.

For the love of God, I am living next door to a complete and utter psychopath.

*

“Psychopath is a little bit strong don’t you think?” Simon said when I disclosed Carl’s most recent night-time escapades at work on Monday morning.

“Easy for you to say, you don’t have to live next door to the weirdo!” I perched myself on the edge of Simon’s desk and swung my legs back and forth, agitated. “Honestly. I can’t live next door to him anymore Simon! I don’t feel safe in my own home. Last month he could well have set fire to my house, and now this!”

I had woken at 11pm one humid night the month before to the sound of continuous banging emanating through the wall, accompanied by a flashing blue light glowing continuously through the flimsy bedroom blind. The blue light, I had discovered as I’d spied from my usual vantage point, belonged to a fire engine which had remained outside the house until 8am the following morning.

When a fire officer visited me later that day to inform me he’d need to check my loft for signs of embers, I couldn’t quite catch my breath.

“Your neighbour managed to set fire to the cavity walls which run through the back of your two houses and the side of your other neighbour’s house.” He informed me with startling gravity. “If the fire’s taken hold, it could spread as the roofs of all three properties are interconnected.”

It transpired that Carl had managed this feat after shoving a lit cannabis spliff in through an air vent in the outside wall along with spraying various aerosols through it, in an attempt to get rid of a wasp’s nest. The banging, I was told, had been a result of the fire brigade having to smash up Carl’s bathroom in order to get to the fire. A fire which had spread through the interior walls whilst he and his family, high on cannabis, had protested at the demolition of the bathroom. The incident had made me realise I should always trust my initial instincts about a person. What I’d seen on that first day he moved in, the shiftiness in which he had passed the package to his mate had told me all I needed to know about Carl. He did dabble in illegal drugs. I had been right. When would I learn to trust my own instinct?

And yet, despite this, despite the fire brigade knowing he had illegal drugs on the premises, still he remained unchecked. And now here he was, digging up my garden in the dark, in the early hours.

“So what are you going to do then?” Simon asked, tapping away at the keys, staring into the dim glow of the screen in front of him.

“I’ve decided, I have no choice,” I sniffed dramatically and paused for effect. “I’m going to have to sell up.”

Simon stopped typing and looked up. “Seems a bit drastic. I mean, you like it there. Don’t you?”

“Correction. I liked it there. Now I feel like I’m living in a war zone. When you think of everything that’s happened over the past few years. The constant loud music which, FYI, has started up again. The threats from the council clearly mean nothing to him. Not to mention the garden fiasco, the fire, and the continuous revving of his engine on my drive right outside my door. ALL. THE. TIME. Then there was that tyre slashing epidemic, which I’m still convinced he was behind.  My nerves are shot Simon. I have to move. I just have to.”

“Can you afford to move?” Simon regarded me, looking deep into my eyes as though he was searching my soul for some other truth. And for the first time in all the conversations we’d had about Carl, I felt his genuine concern for what I was experiencing.

“No.” I shook my head. “You know I can’t.  And even if I could afford it, I’d never sell the place.” I suddenly felt impotent. “Think about it. Who’d want to live next door to that? I’d have to disclose the fact he’s a psycho if someone asked what the neighbours are like. It’s the law isn’t it? I’d be done for if I lied. The situation’s hopeless.” I sank down into my chair and swivelled back to focus on the computer screen.

“I’m so sorry,” said Simon, coming over and placing his hand over mine. “I wish there was something I could do. I really do.”

“If I had another bedroom you could move in with me,” I said brightly.

“But you don’t,” he said and after holding on to my hand for a little longer than was necessary, he returned to his desk.

“No. I don’t,” I said.  More’s the pity.

I resigned myself miserably to the fact that I really had no choice but to endure living next door to Carl.  I slid out of my seat and took myself out of the fire exit and wandered over to the metal bins where the smokers would congregate soon for their scheduled, permitted smoking break, and slipped myself behind one.

And then I cried. For the first time I actually cried tears about the utter hopelessness of the situation and at how miserable it made me. Every day a living nightmare, never knowing whether that night I would get a full night’s sleep. Not knowing what carnage I might have to face next. Three years of living on the edge of my nerves had taken their toll and I sobbed for the simple fact of not knowing what to do next.

*

Voices, angry and visceral, deep and definitely both male, woke me from my slumber around midnight.

What now? More drunks coming home from a night out? I sighed, irritated at yet more sleep disturbance.

No. Not drunks. I looked down into the street from my usual vantage point through a small opening I’d made in the blind. To my horror, I could see Carl and another man circling each other in the middle of the road, like two wild animals marking their territory. Their words, though loud, were inaudible, and to my mind they were either obviously drunk or high on something or, more likely, both. I grabbed my phone, ready to call the direct line number I’d been given to the police after the plant debacle. Brawling on the street was definitely illegal. I made to dial the number when suddenly, Carl dived into his car and roared off down the street. I watched as he brought the Escort screeching to a halt at the top of the road before doing his trademark hand brake U-turn and speeding back down towards the other man who was caught, quite literally, like a rabbit in the headlights. The man jumped out of the path of the oncoming vehicle just in time and ran into Carl’s house, slamming the door shut behind him. Carl spun the car back onto the drive, neglecting to even close the door as he hunted down his prey.

My hand hovered over the dial, shaking, unsure of what to do next. They were no longer on the street. That changed things. Now it wasn’t a brawl in public. It was an indoor fight so what would be done? I heard crashing and banging emanating through the paper-thin walls and for the first time since Carl had moved in I feared for my own safety. What if I did report him now? What if he police came? Sure all the other incidents had been inconvenient or strange but this seemed…well, violent. Carl had never shown signs of violence before. If I reported him and he got off would he come for me?  I hesitated the phone still grasped tight in my sweating hand.

I turned to head back into bed when I heard his front door scrape open again and I dived back to the window, peering underneath the gap at the bottom. The second man came running out of the house pursued by Carl.

A shiver slithered down my spine when I saw what Carl was carrying and I froze.

Slung low, swinging by his side, he clutched a samurai sword. I had to do a double take to be sure of what it was but there was no mistaking the distinctive curves of the weapon. Carl, pushed past his own car, slamming the open door shut and focused in on his quarry who staggered in the road. Carl brandished the weapon, a menacing stare throbbing in his black eyes and he stalked towards his intended victim. The second man stumbled and then laughed, goading Carl.

If this is a game, it isn’t funny.  I shrank back in the darkness and dialled 999. This was no direct number, log a complaint kind of incident.

As I waited nervously for a response, I could only watch, terrified, as Carl lunged at the second man with the sword. With every swing the weapon glinted ominously in the low moonlight. I flinched, wondering if I was about to become a witness to a murder. I felt sick. I wanted to run out there and yell at him to stop it, but all I could see was my own decapitated head lying on the road. His adversary ducked and weaved in and out of every swing. If Carl hadn’t been so inebriated I had no doubt the guy he was attacking would be dead by now and I would be stood up in a court room in the not so distant future.

A male voice on the line suddenly broke my concentration from the unreal scene below me.  I whispered into the receiver, petrified that somehow Carl would hear me.

But I needn’t have feared. Within minutes the police were on the scene and I watched with relief as Carl and the other man were carted off in the back of a Ford Mondeo, its silent blue lights blinking in the suburban night sky.

The police asked, as I shivered clutching a cup of sweet tea, if I was willing to make a witness statement in court. I wasn’t, and I didn’t dare tell Simon I’d been asked. What if I gave evidence and Carl was let off? The old question came back to haunt me. There were no guarantees. He wouldn’t know it’d been me to call the police this time. Anyone could have witnessed the scene, but despite that I wasn’t about to put my life on the line.

I didn’t see Carl for some time after that. It turned out he’d had his car impounded due to being drunk in charge of the vehicle and although he wasn’t forced to face a magistrate after the samurai incident, he had spent two nights in the police cells which I could only assume had given him some food for thought as once he returned home the disturbances subsided.

At least for a while.

*

October the following year came round, cold and blustery. The leaves had fallen from the trees sooner than usual and a carpet of golden brown now covered the long since recovered flower bed and lawn.  Somehow, and I wasn’t sure how, I’d endured living next door to Carl for over four years.

It was a Friday night and I was due to travel to London the following day with Simon, meaning I needed to rise early to catch the 8:20 train. More than ever I needed a refreshing night’s sleep so I was relieved when I went to bed around 10pm to the sound of silence.

However, the peace was not destined to last long. The all too familiar ‘thump, thump, thump’ struck up from next door just as I was dropping off, promptly returning me unwillingly into the world. I tried to ignore the thrum of the bass but I knew there was every possibility it could continue until 6am. Perched on the edge of sanity, my senses heightened, I listened for the end of each track, praying that would be the last one. But the end never came. On and on the bass thudded vibrating through the floor and to my bed. I lay awake, a familiar anger bubbling inside me.  Simon and I were due to pitch an idea for a computer programme we’d developed to one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country the next morning. The future of our business depended on it. To me, the contract could possibly mean the difference of being stuck next door to Carl for another four years or being able to up and move within months.

And yet, here he was, Carl, ironically about to ruin my chances of escape by simply stealing my sleep. If I couldn’t focus tomorrow on the pitch then we had no hope of winning the contract. Simon was the brains behind the operation but I was the salesperson. I had the gift of the gab when it came to dealing with hard faced business types but I needed to be fresh for it.

11:30pm arrived. My nerves rattled more than the wind through the venetian blind as I tossed and turned debating whether to confront Carl but the image of that samurai sword couldn’t be shifted and I procrastinated for a few minutes more. Ten minutes more and my seething anger won the battle over my nerves. In one decisive move, I stomped out of bed and reached for my dressing gown. A minute later I was out in the freezing autumn air banging on the glass of Carl’s front door. To my relief, his brother answered and, when I asked if it would be possible for them to turn the music down he was extremely apologetic and immediately went inside and the racket ceased.

Progress, I thought as I ascended the stairs back to my room. I slumped back in to bed and buried my head in the pillow, still infuriated at having had my sleeping time cut by an hour and a half.

Eventually, mercifully, thankfully, I dozed off.

A mere half an hour later I was woken by a voice shouting up at the window.

What the…?

“Oi! Helen,” the voice shouted.

Hearing my name, I climbed out of bed and raised the blind. I couldn’t see anyone at first as the roof of the porch blocked my view. Then I saw the voice’s owner. I watched Carl stagger back into the glow of the street lamp, drunk and high as usual.

“What is it?” I shouted down, doing everything to show my irritation through my tone.

“Have you got a problem?” his slurred words were vitriolic.

“No,” I replied honestly. “Not anymore.”

“I hear you wanted us to turn down the music?”

“Yes,” I said tersely. “But you’ve done it now, so there’s no problem. Thank you.”

“Well you obviously have got a problem,” Carl continued. Lager slopped onto the ground and hissed as he lurched forwards again.

“No.” I said more firmly.  “Like I say, I asked you to turn it down, you have. All’s fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to bed.” I closed the window tight against the bitter air and let go of the cord. The blind slithered back down into position blocking out Carl’s creepy face as well as the street light.

I clambered back into bed, my teeth chattering and shaken a little from the unexpected verbal altercation. The guy’s a complete nut job. What the hell does he mean “you obviously HAVE got a problem? Well yes actually, I have a problem. With you generally, but right now I just need to sleep.

I lay there for a couple more minutes, silently seething, and then there was an almighty bang.

A banging on my own front door.

“Helen! Open up!” Carl’s slurred drawl voice resounded through my letter box.

I pulled the covers up around me tighter. He’ll go away in a minute.

“There’s no need to be scared Helen, jus’ open up. I jus’ wanna to talk to you.” The image of the samurai sword flashed through my mind once more and a sudden terror took hold. I lay still and quiet, praying he’d leave but Carl continued banging his fist on the door.

I slipped one arm out from under the covers and hastily fumbled in the dark to locate my mobile phone. I dared not put it on for fear he would see the light. I needed the direct line number the police had given me but that was downstairs at the back of the house in a kitchen cupboard.  What was I going to do? To get to the kitchen I’d have to walk down the stairs which descended to rest directly opposite the front door. How the hell was I going to get down the stairs without Carl noticing me? The house might be dark but the street lamp outside would almost certainly cast a light on me and give me away.

What if he breaks my door downOh God! What do I do? Think Helen, think.

I hid deeper under the covers with my phone and dialled Simon’s number as the knocking and shouting from Carl continued more persistently.

Please answer. Please, please answer.

The ringing tone cut out and Simon’s voice, albeit it sleepy and grumpy, had never sounded so welcome.

“I’ll come straight over,” he said. Give me twenty minutes. In the meantime, if you are able to call the police, do so.”

I grasped the phone tight in my hand and crept out of bed, praying I wouldn’t step on any of those floorboards which were prone to creaking. I heard Carl’s voice trail off. Now’s my chance. I padded to the top of the stairwell and crouched down.

I couldn’t see Carl at the front door and so quickly began to make my descent. But as I reached the bottom I almost let out a cry as Carl’s face suddenly loomed at me pressed up against the glass panes and he shouted for me to open the door. My heart raced and I felt as though I might stop breathing.

If only I had another exit out of this place.

He’d seen me of that here was no doubt.  I sped through the lounge and into the kitchen, closing the door silently behind me and turned on the phone’s dim light. My bare feet on the cold lino caused me to shiver and I fumbled in the cupboard as I searched for the scrap piece of paper with. Upon finding it, with shaking fingers, I punched in the direct number to the local police station.

“Is he still there madam?” asked the woman on the other end of the phone. She couldn’t have sounded less interested if she’d tried and I felt my despair crowd me like never before. No-one is ever going to help me escape this man!  I inched open the kitchen door and peered round it. Carl was no longer there. He’d disappeared and when I heard his own front door slam shut I hoped to the gods he’d given up and gone back to his drinking.

“Well, we can log a complaint for you madam, but as no actual crime has been committed there’s not much we can do for now. You say your friend is coming over, is that right?”

I confirmed he was but wondered now whether I’d ever feel safe in my own home again even if I had an armed guard stationed at the door.

Simon arrived exactly twenty minutes later to be greeted to jeers of:  “Oh look, she’s got her boyfriend to come and protect her.”

I ushered Simon inside through the smallest opening I’d dared to allow as I inched open the door. Completely unconcerned, Simon eyed both brothers with his steely emeralds and said: “Why don’t you do everyone a favour and get in that car of yours and go drive it into a brick wall?”

He slammed the front door shut and locked it. Simon never slammed anything.  I looked at him, slightly scared of what might happen next but secretly proud he had the gall to stand up to them.

Simon’s words evidently gave them the idea to think it was perfectly acceptable to then start up the spluttery engine of the 1989 Ford Escort at 2am and rev it repeatedly, whilst shining the headlights through the leaded glass in the front door. I slumped down onto the sofa and sobbed. The nightmare was never-ending. Simon came over and sat down next to me. He put his hand tentatively on my shoulder and then pulled me close to him and held me as the tears flooded out.

“I hate what he’s done to you,” Simon said, his eyes watery and his face serious. “But you can’t let him intimidate you.”

“Too late,” I said. “It’s too late.”

*

Despite not winning the pharmaceuticals contract, I decided to put the house back on the market for sale when spring came round. Things had changed on a personal level, and I knew the time had come to finally rid myself of Carl.

Simon, ever the voice of reason, expressed his concerns about prospective buyers and what we would have to tell them if they were to ask about the neighbours, echoing my own fears from the first time I’d contemplated selling as an option out of the nightmare.

“We’ll just have to risk the lie if they ask. But we can’t live like this anymore, you know we can’t. Besides, this place is too small for two of us. As cosy and lovely as it is, we need more space for our stuff.” I was adamant.

More space was only the secondary driver to my final decision though. In truth, I felt drained. Worry, anxiety and lack of sleep, which hadn’t subsided even with Simon moving in, had dominated my life for too long.  Five years of living next door to Carl had aged me. I figured, selfishly, it was someone else’s turn.

Simon and I decorated every room with a fresh lick of paint and added a few new accessories here and there to help appeal to the widest demographic possible. There was nothing I hadn’t learned from watching endless house-doctoring TV shows.

Two weeks later we opened the house up for viewings, though I dreaded every time anyone made an appointment in case Carl would be around, blaring his rap music either from the house or from his car. Then they’d find out for themselves what my neighbour was like and be put off from buying. If the coast was clear, I was still on edge, hoping no one would ask about the neighbours, preparing to lie if they did, knowing I could be in trouble for doing so.

However, all my fears were unfounded. Strangely, ever since we’d decorated and prepared the house for sale, Carl had being conspicuously quiet. Did he know? Did he instinctively know I’d mention him if the issue of neighbours was raised and actually he was equally hopeful of seeing the back of me? No, Carl never thought past the moment he was in. What was I thinking?

The third person to view the house loved it and immediately put in an offer, much to my relief. She hadn’t even asked about the neighbours, apparently satisfied with what she saw during her viewings. Simon and I celebrated quietly with a bottle champagne. Together with the equity I’d made and Simon’s savings we could afford to make a move to a house we’d seen over the other side of the city.  However, I couldn’t rest until the contracts were signed.

But nothing went wrong.  Nothing. We hadn’t seen so much of a glimpse of Carl in weeks and I could only assume he’d gone on holiday. The day before we were due to exchange keys, Simon and I packed up our belongings, ready to move on to what I hoped would be a place where I could finally feel safe once more.

I held the steps to the ladder as Simon climbed in to the loft and passed down box after box.

“Are we leaving this old mattress up here?” he called.

“No, leave it. We’d only have to get the council to collect it anyway. The new owner probably won’t even notice. It’s shoved up at the back isn’t it? ”

Simon gave me a thumbs up.

“Oh, while you’re up there,” I called, “is the old bedroom blind anywhere? It’d fit perfectly in the new bathroom I think but haven’t seen it since we decorated. Did you put it up with the mattress and other large stuff?”

“Oh, no,” Simon’s voice echoed around the cavernous space above. His feet suddenly popped into view and he swung his muscular body down, pulling the hatch shut. “I er…broke the cord. Sorry. I took it to the dump with the old furniture and some other stuff which I needed to get rid of. I thought I’d told you.”

“Never mind. It was probably weakened from all those years of me pulling it up and down when I was spying on Carl!” I laughed. “Besides, it always was a bit useless at completely blocking out the light. We’re well shot of it.”

“Yes,” Simon agreed. “It’s better off in landfill.”

*

 Today, May 17th, exactly five years to the day since Carl moved in, I am saying goodbye to the old house once and for all and I can’t help but reflect on all its memories, both good and bad.

“I hope the new owner never has the same trouble with Carl that I did,” I say to Simon as we load up the white van we’ve hired for the day. “I feel guilty that she might have to put up with that. It doesn’t seem fair and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I just hope he stays as quiet as he has been lately.”

“Oh I think everything will be fine,” Simon says in his usual nonchalant, self-assured way, and slides the final box into the back of the van.

A sudden  uncomfortable, niggling thought, pushes its way to the forefront of my mind.

Trust your instinct Helen, you’re always right. I recall my own mantra.

“How can you be so sure?” I laugh. Sometimes I think Simon is just too confident about the future. He’d certainly had a quiet certainty we would end up together, not something I’d seen coming that was for sure.

“Let’s just call it instinct,” he says and kisses me before we climb into the van and leave the house for the last time.

I strap myself in and, as I cast one last glance at the two houses, I shove my own instinct to the back of my mind, hoping it won’t return to haunt me.

 

 

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