Of Knowing and Not Knowing

We find out as we go along, of course. That element of discovery, of learning precisely where our stories and characters are heading, is one of the pleasures of writing, however you go about the business. There are familiar terms for types of writers and methods of writing: some divide them into ‘planners’ and ‘pansters’ – those who structure their writing carefully in advance, scheming every device and trick as they craft their work into the shape they desire, and those who sit at the empty page and write as the characters take them.

Whether this separation is this simple is another question. I’m certain that we do both, depending on the piece at hand and the manner of our efforts; though we may have planned as completely as we thought possible, designing our narratives and those who inhabit them with care and precision, there are moments where intricacies and phrases lead us into a new awareness of the story. It’s just a case of accepting that as much as you knew, you didn’t know after all. And that’s fine. More than that, it’s an essential part of the actions of writing.

I heard recently of a Spanish version of this apparent schism: ‘escritores brújulas’ and ‘escritores mapa’, roughly translated as ‘compassers’, and ‘cartographers’, which seems like a much better way to see it. At times I am content to follow a course of travel, at others I map the work out and plan my route through it, and in both of these approaches I still find myself looking for directions along the way.

And it’s those occasions, the times when the map gets creased or is lacking in specific details, that I learn about the characters, the story, and my ways of writing. It means going back into the text and redrawing those delicate patterns, so that the path is clearer, but isn’t that the point? Though I may know where I thought I was going it turns out that I wanted to end up with a different story, and I didn’t know that until I let the creative process resolve itself. However slight that difference is, it’s what keeps us coming back to the page to try to fashion language into communication.

Of Titles and Turtles

First, a disclaimer or a spoiler alert: there are no turtles in this post. Aside from these two mentions, and the one in the title, there won’t be any more turtles. Neither the word nor the reptile to which it refers will reappear, so if you’re only reading this for more lovely information or entertainment concerning such fresh-water and/or sea-dwelling testudines, you might as well click away to something more useful to you.





(Just so there’s no confusion here…)


This leads to an obvious question: why include them in the title, then? Well, that depends on what you want from a title. I recently finished writing a story – one of those beasts that gnaws away at you, not with teeth but with the horny ridges of its upper and lower jaws. It’s taken almost two years to get this chelonian tale finally to poke its head out from under its carapace and let me see it, and on a last-edit read-through I saw something which irritated me to the point of frustration.

It had a title, this story. Had had it since early in its inception, and it had carried me through those months of it lying safely buried in warm sand. Trouble is, the title was included almost word for word within the text itself, and when I was reading through the ‘finished’ piece those words leapt out at me. It was if they carried far more importance than all the other words, because it was (almost) also the title. It had to go.

In chatting to a non-writer this problem came to be discussed. What did I want from the title, she asked? Did I want it to tell the reader what the story was about, somehow to encapsulate all the possibly meanings, sub-meanings, contexts and asides? No. Did I want it to sum up the narrative? No. Did I want to allude, to draw in, to entice? Again, no. Okay, she said, so what do you want? Why is it so difficult?

Good question.

A few days ago I saw a Twitter reply to this vexing issue of titles, from the American novelist and screenwriter Matt Wallace (@MattFnWallace): “I pretend the story has died and I’m writing its obituary and I ask myself what the headline would be.” To me, that’s a really fine place to start – what, exactly, are you writing about? What is the most urgent, most demanding, more vital point of contact you have with the story, the one which you need to explore creatively, even if it’s only to find out what you think?

And my story? Three weeks went by, with me wracking my brains trying to find which word or words would adequately convey what I wanted the title to say. It would have helped, of course, if I’d known what any of that was. I left the problem to incubate, and soon enough a title squirmed its way to the surface and trundled down to the shoreline to meet me, where I considered it, worked out how to spell it, and then took it out for a swim to see how it felt.

I liked it. It gave the piece a solid surround of keratin, of scutes, that said pretty much nothing and yet (to me) said all that there was to be said within, around and outside of the narrative and its environment. The story is now sitting in the hands of an editor (hence no naming it here!), waiting for them to contact me and say ‘I like it, and I want it, but can you change the title, please? This one’s far too vague.’

Of Time and Fountains

As promised, there’s a story available to read as from today, and without a pay-wall. Thanks to the lovely folk at the Mechanics Institute Review, for publishing it.

An odd piece, and one which I’m still not sure is entirely successful (though how we choose to make such judgement is itself an interesting question, and one for another time, surely.)

Hope – or its continued reappearance – is a damaging emotion, that’s the premise. The scars we carry around are easier to cope with than when the wounds were fresh, and we can pick at them every once in a while to remember why and how they came to be.

Read here, Some of the Fountains, and decide how you feel.


You…you what?

Or, more precisely, you whom?

When we write in the second person who are we talking to? Who is this undefined ‘other’, this addressee? In poetry readers often imagine that the poet is talking to a specific individual, a person and personality who the poets want to aim their words at. Or the poem is a wider ‘you’, encompassing a relevance to the reader(s), both singular and plural. Often the poet is talking to both parties at the same time, using the voice to convey past the individual to the human experience being explored.

But fiction? What then? We don’t expect that kind of individual attention, do we?

There’s the second person, present tense kind of story, the type where a narrator follows the character around, describing what s/he does, perhaps hinting at why, from a position of oversight. A sort of imposing, almost dominant voice, casting shade and light on hidden motivations. I like those, though to me they’re sometimes intrusive, invasive. There’s the kind where the narrator is speaking directly to the reader (or appears to be) – Calvino springs to mind – and I’ve used this too, at times, for effect…it’s fun also to break the walls, even if the reader won’t always notice because it’s a collective, cultural ‘you’ – ‘a large desk like you’d see in an office’, for example.

And yet. Second person, past tense. ‘You did this, you did that.’ Why is the narrator telling the character what they’re already done? The natural answer would be for the character to turn round and say ‘Yes, I know. It’s my life, remember?’

I’ve written a story in this voice, and it’s an odd experience. To me, the blurring between narrator and narratee. If the narrator is engaging directly in dialogue with the character, even in a sub- or contextual manner, this implies a relationship between the two participants: given that this narrator (or narratorial viewpoint) is an authorial construction, created artificially to relate the circumstances of the story, what does this do or say about the protagonist ? I started to consider who this character was, and whether s/he was indeed anything more than a vision, an imagined (or idealised) listener/reader. In redrafting it seemed to me that s/he was possibly only a narratee, less an active, involved protagonist and more an impression or a suggestion of a character.

I’m happy to say that the story is going to be published very soon by The Mechanics Institute Review, and will be available to be read (without a pay-wall!) here: Some of the Fountains, Some of the Time (yes, I know it’s a strange title.)

If you’ve any clues as to who this character is, or what their relationship is with the narrator, please do let me know. It’s a learning business, this.

Of Intimacy and Intricacy

Another story of mine is going to be published soon.

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Let’s be clear – I’m delighted, thrilled…but when the email came through with the news, it confused me. The story is small, intimate, personal; in some way it feels like an invasion to know that it’s going to be seen by others. I must have wanted this to happen, or I wouldn’t have submitted the thing, and yet when it came to releasing these words and thoughts into the world I hesitated.

I wrote to the editor, asking for some time to address a couple of issues (not least a change of title!), but for the most part I was simply having to consider whether or not I was willing to share. It’s fiction, of course, but in fiction there are ‘truths’ of a sort – moments or mimics of ourselves, of those around us, of what we see and hear and feel. Should these not be kept private? Am I exploiting my imagination somehow?

Readers will often (wrongly) ascribe the actions and emotions of poetry to the poet, especially when the work is in the first person. We’re intelligent, sensible people, we know it’s narrative voice, an artificially created narrator relaying a constructed story, an impression of life, but something urges us to give the work more emotional resonance if we feel that we are being spoken to directly, about real events or feelings. It’s the same with prose too, and the first person narrator will be imagined to be the same voice of the author. So are we as readers giving inaccurate credence to writers’ works, or are writers hiding behind their fancy terms of overt diagesis and dialogics to make us think that what’s being read is made up?

We leave marks behind, whatever we do. Scars remain. If that comes out in our writing sometimes, consciously or not, then we can’t really complain. If we then choose to publish the work, to expose those scars – or the artificial, narrative creations partly driven by the memory of scarring – then we are choosing to risk readers creating the same misattributions and misrepresentations. Perhaps that’s why I stalled for so long – I wanted some form of ‘permission’, a rationale or acceptance that these things needed to be said out loud, that the intricacy and intimacy of writing the story, the communication within it, was worth saying. And if I’d wanted to say it only to myself then why did I submit it for publication? So, happily, here it comes.

I’ll post details of the where and when in a couple of weeks, when we’re nearer the event – or on twitter – @SimonJHolloway – so you can read the story and see if I’m abusing my imagination. Such endless worries…you’d have thought it would be easy just to make up a story or two…

Fragments of Hiding

Leaning on the ledge, each of them with arms folded. Foreheads resting against the dulled, damp wood, like so many before. Terns and whimbrels and redshanks sheltering as they could from the sky. In a long, slow measure he told her everything he wanted to say, everything she wanted to hear, everything that ever mattered in that moment, everything that ever could. Rain fell like a shield of promises.

…coming soon

What We Do Not Have

His smile on leaving, the idle phrasing of ‘an hour or so?’, even the feel of his leg, all hung in the piles of the deep blue carpet like suggestions.

She lay down and rested the same cheek on the floor, protecting it from feeling the absence of his thigh. There were stray hairs weaved into the carpet. Mostly hers, longish but not too long, shades of brown from tip to root. She spotted a few of his lighter hairs yet they were so short there could have been more. But she had sat on the chest to brush her hair every day for, how long? In the mornings, her weight keeping it tightly closed as she got ready for work. The space beneath her.

…coming soon.

Of Speaking and Not Being Heard

I recently started work on a story that’s made me think about how we speak, what we say, and how and when we’re listened to. There’s an obvious disconnection between these two actions – how often do we way something, and then find out later that the person we were talking to heard something else entirely?

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” Henry David Thoreau said. Similarly, it’s not what you listen to that matters, it’s what you hear. And this is not some lament about how the 21st Century, with its mass communication and digital media, is more full of ‘noise’ than ever – the world has always been full of noise if that is what you decide to listen to – but rather a question of perspective.

We filter out so much of what we hear, choosing to focus on the salient points and receiving only the information that we want. The rest is discarded like packaging or decoration, nice to look at but not of any importance to us when what we really want is the goodness inside, the nutrients of whatever is being said.

But is this what our interlocutor wants? At times, yes, certainly: we need to know what time the meeting is, where it will be held and who will be there, or we want to know how much our shopping costs or how much the bill is in a restaurant. We require only the information, and anything else could be seen as a superfluous diversion from getting on with the day. Yet in the last of these, the restaurant, when a waiter or waitress asks us ‘Is everything okay for you?’ what he or she is really saying is ‘I’m just checking in because I have to, and if I do it in a pleasant and friendly way then I might get a bigger tip, and you know how much I rely on tips to boost my wages.’ When we automatically reply ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ we’re agreeing to the transaction, acting out our parts in what otherwise is a meaningless dialogue, at least in terms of the spoken language used.

If we ask a close friend or a family member the same question, however, and get the same reply, we are hearing far more than the words. We hear intonation, cadence, inflexion, tone, we receive body language and facial expressions. But do we always listen to those other forms of speech and react accordingly, or accept the phrase ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ and carry on going about our business?

Or, to put it another way, when you speak to someone you care about, would you like them to hear you? Are you so keen to tell them exactly what it is that ails you that you use a multitude of interconnected languages to try to get your message across? And if that person doesn’t hear you and fails to respond are you left unsatisfied, frustrated, uncared for in return? There’s a sense here of action and reaction, of point and counterpoint, of call and response. Imagine then how that cherished person would feel if the roles were reversed, and you didn’t hear what they were saying to you.

People choose to talk to us for many reasons, in many different circumstances, and through many different forms of communication. I’m trying to ask myself, in writing this story and thinking through my characters’ actions, how I’d like to be heard in those various situations, especially in the intimate, private moments when I need nothing more than for someone to listen carefully to what I’m saying. If I can manage that, or at least am able to consider some of those thousands of times when I’ve not listened properly, then perhaps I can be better at allowing others to be heard. I don’t just need to admire the decoration, important though such nuances may be, I need to hear the contents inside.

Safety Measures

“Fancy forgetting to buy vanilla essence,” she says to the cake tin. It will have to do without. Bran won’t notice. Or if he does, he won’t say anything. She smooths the batter and layers apple in concentric circles, harder to cut once cooked but prettier to look at. The oven is hot. The last shake of sugar on the top of the cake will burn nicely. She picks up the red, egg-shaped kitchen timer, a present from her two-year old grandson, or so the label said on the wrapping paper, and turns the dial past the wide segments of four and five minutes of egg-timing to the narrower bands of ten.

from “Safety Measures”, in Issue 4 of The Bolton Review, out this week.

Reading in Manchester

Next Monday, 25th April, I’ll be reading averboset live literature night Verbose, at the Fallow Café in Fallowfield, Manchester.

Okay, nothing special so far – but I get to headline with two lovely poets, Anne Caldwell and Evan Jones.

Anne is currently a  Literature Programme Manager for The British Council, which perhaps makes her sound very important. Good. She is.  She’s also a dashed fine poet, and will be reading from her brand new collection, Painting The Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press).

Evan is Canadian, which doesn’t matter in any way except that it gives his voice that beautiful Québécois intonation, and gives his poetry a similarly melancholic and introspective tone. And it’s about time he brought a new book out, since it’s been four years since Carcanet published Paralogues.

I think – and this is only a guess – that I’ll be reading a story called ‘Safety Measures’, though I’ll need to check the timings. I hope so, though, as it’s going to be published  in issue 4 of The Bolton Review, so the publicity should help. I understand that some of the other nine published and up-and-coming poets and prose writers performing might also premiere work from The Review, ahead of its launch next Wednesday.

Since being relaunched in January 2015 by Sarah-Clare Conlon, Verbose has welcomed such luminaries of the North West literature scene as Jenn Ashworth, Elizabeth Baines, Sarah Butler, Aisla Cox, James Davies, David Gaffney, Jim Hinks, Sarah Jasmon, Tom Jenks, John McAuliffe, Ian McGuire, Fat Roland, Nicholas Royle, John D Rutter, Geoff Ryman, Graeme Shimmin, Scott Thurston and Emma Jane Unsworth. Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Alison Moore has also read.

What I’m saying, in a roundabout kind of way, is that if you fancy coming along to say hello and to hear some excellent live literature, then I’ll see you there – the  Fallow Café, 2a Landcross Road, M14 6NA. Free entry, and doors are at 7.30pm. See http://verbosemcr.wordpress.com.