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The walls of time and space

Really interesting feedback on our excursion into the present tense last week. More on that – sort of – in a bit. But first may we have:

  • A toot on a trumpet
  • A fat man thumping a kettle drum
  • A peacock riding a donkey
  • A small elephant with a richly jewelled caparison
  • A cart full of slightly tired dancers in leotards and top hats
  • Some children handing out bottles of water
  • A rumpus, a brouhaha and a hullabaloo

Because …

It is the 2020 launch of our Ultimate Novel Writing Course.

This course won’t be for everyone. It’s quite demanding and it’s quite expensive. But if you were thinking of doing an MA or MFA course with an emphasis on creative writing, then our UNWC is probably something to think about.

I’ve included more about all this in a PS. We ran a course last year (it’s just finishing up now) and it was excellent. That said, we’ve learned stuff in the course of 2019/20 and we’re aiming for this year’s course to be even better. If you’re interested – and, to repeat, this isn’t for everyone – then do read more below. (Or just pop over here for more.)

Righty-ho. That’s one thing.

The next thing to say is that my Friday email next week

  • may come to you on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday;
  • it will be very short;
  • it will ask you to take one simple action

And that’ll be that.

Normal service will resume the week after – at which point I’ll tell you exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it.



Let’s turn to the altogether more interesting topic of the walls of time and space.

The big takeaway from last week’s excursion to the present tense was that you don’t have to isolate yourself in a little dot of always-on consciousness. You can just talk about the external world, and the recent past, and the near future, and your narrator’s thoughts and memories in a much more fluid, more natural sounding way.

Now I got quite a lot of correspondence on that email. Much of it – oh, OK, most of it – was concerned with moustaches and tress-tossing. But a few people wanted to know if that I had similar observations in relation to the past tense.

Well – kinda.

On the one hand, the past tense doesn’t lure you into the same bad habits. But it’s still possible to write a past-tense story with the narrative viewpoint jammed at the same distance from the protagonist and the story the entire time.

So perhaps we see everything at middle-distance focus – windows, coffee cups, mattresses – but see nothing that’s either tiny or huge, nothing either utterly intimate or broadly universal.

Now if you handle things really carefully (and have a dab of genius) you might just write a wonderful novel that way.

More likely, though, you’ll bore the reader.

So mix things up. Cheat. And cheat merrily. As often and wildly as you like.

So, let’s say your needs you to follow Character A and Character B through some fairly tedious city streets. Fine. So do that. But you can pull in anything from anywhere along the way.

Take, for example, this little chunk narrated by my own little Fiona Griffiths:

The bar is only a twenty-minute walk away and parking could be difficult, so we walk. After a couple of minutes, Buzz puts his arm around me and squeezes me in close. It’s a gesture that moves me every time he does it. Like I’m not just being hooked in close to one large and well-proportioned male body, but like I’m being gathered back into the world of the living.

It makes me think of those astronauts dangling in space on the end of their tethering ropes. You think that those ropes are pipes feeding air to the space suit, but they’re not. They’re just ropes. If someone cut the rope or unhitched it from the spacecraft, the astronaut would be left dangling for ever, hanging a thousand miles above the Earth, waiting to die. Buzz’s enfolding arm brings me in from the void, through the airlock, back to the community of the human race.

I usually become girly and affectionate when I feel these things. I become that now.

 On the one hand, this is just a comment about Fiona’s boyfriend squeezing her close and her warmly affectionate feelings about that.

And on the other hand – wow!

All he’s actually done is squeeze her close. But what she talks about is being an astronaut dangling alone in space, until Buzz brings her “in from the void, through the airlock, back to the community of the human race.” There’s such a huge gap between their actual situation (a normal, short walk) and the one in her head that we feel the power of his gesture far more than we would otherwise have done.

And we’ve been able to skip a dull little description of early-evening Cardiff, because we’ve just thrown in an utterly unexpected description of dangling astronauts. No mattresses or coffee cups there. Note that the passage ends with the short sentence, “I become that now.” That “now” marks the transition from flight-of-fancy to dutiful-return to the actual present. 

I’ll give you another example.

In this instance, Fiona is hooked up with a trawler captain (Honnold) by video link. Fiona’s boss wants to know if Fiona was the mystery woman on board the trawler. If Honnold answers truthfully that she was, her career as a detective will be over. Here’s how the moment goes:

Jackson [Fiona’s boss] waves a hand.

At me, at the chair, at the end of my career.

I stand up, of course. There’s nothing else to do. Move towards my doom, but – a funny thing – have this almost literal sense of getting smaller as I approach. A kind of Alice in Wonderland experience, in which I find myself shrinking until, by the time I have somehow clambered onto that evilly rocking seat, I feel myself no bigger than a tiny white mouse, nibbling, and twitching, and combing my whiskers.

I face the screen.

Honnold’s face, but I’m so spacey, so gluey with apprehension, that I can read nothing at all in his expression, his tone, his smile.

Somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto, I hear Jackson say, ‘Can you see all right, Captain?’ Jackson adjusts the webcam at our end and rolls my chair forward.

‘Aye, that’s fine.’

‘And? Is this the woman?’

There’s a pause.

I feel the silence fill with the bones of a thousand winters, the death of galaxies. My limbs are lead. My mouth is glue.

Again, this is as wildly different from that window-mattress-coffee-cup view as you could imagine. Fiona has become a small white mouse, travelled beyond the orbit of Pluto, waited a thousand winters and witnessed the death of galaxies – and she’s done all this, whilst making a very short video-call.

Those vastly over-the-top comparisons are obviously a way to emphasise how much this moment matters. But they also turn time and space into a rubber that you can bend as far and as creatively as you fancy. I’ve done that here with a narrator using the present tense, but the same basic approach would work just fine with the past.

Yes: my first-person narrator writes in a handbrake-off sort of way and you need a basic synchrony between the images you use and the person you’re dealing with, but the basic approach can be used almost anywhere.

And also –

A weird thing happens. Even though these two passages relate merely to (i) a conventional loving boyfriend-girlfriend gesture, and (ii) two people looking at each other via video, the whole book seems to have enlarged.

The action seems bigger. The emotional stakes seem greater. The whole canvas seems enlarged and more alive. And a boring street scene / office scene takes on a colour and a charge that it could never have had with imagery drawn from the mattress-window-coffee-cup playbook. Those are a lot of cheap wins, right? Plus it’s fun to do.

Remember to take a peek at the UNWC info.

Remember too that next week you will be getting a very short email from me on a random day of the week. Everything will be explained (and back to normal) in two weeks’ time.

Right now, though? That damn peacock has fallen off the donkey and the elephant has made off with one of the dancers. I’m off to deal with them.

Give me one of your space & time bending comparisons / images. You get a double vodka if you beat a thousand winters. If you also travel beyond the orbit of Pluto, I will have the vodka brought to you by elephant.


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Comments (4)
  • I call that a wet sandwich. Space suits are tough. Do you know that without a space suit you would boil and evaporate almost instantaneously? Makes me want to take the hammer onto the roof again. Star gazing and all that...

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    • Fiona comes across as extremely likeable, loveable even! 

      I'm nervous however of going off on a limb with metaphor, if I can't see how it ties in with my character's experience or theme I won't go there. I'd need some reason my character would be thinking of astronauts, even if it was just having something on the TV in the background in an earlier scene. Maybe I'm too strict on myself, maybe it's a style thing.

      Nice writing though.

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      • Only envy alas so no hope of the elephant.

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        • Harry, what a coincidence... I've also got a metaphor with an astronaut tethered to the spaceship, in Roots 

          Ah... You mean you saw it there? You are welcome... (Mine is better than yours.)

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