Neglect characters at your peril
I’ve been incredibly busy lately – hence no posts for a while. It’s all been very enjoyable stuff and a lot of it connected with writing, but the worst thing is that I’ve done no work on my new novel Two Minutes from Eros.
I started chapter three weeks ago, but 600 words in, I ground to a halt and since then nothing, zilch, not a word.
Well, that’s okay, you might be thinking, get on with it now, instead of whingeing on here.
The thing is – I’m a bit scared. What will the characters be like when I get back? What will they have been getting up to in the meantime? Because characters don’t go into suspended animation just because their writer neglects them. They’re likely to get up to all sorts in the meantime. Take Sofia Brabazon for instance:
Sofia Brabazon Fights Back
He’s left me. Stranded. The mobile buzzed and his voice went soppy, like it does when he’s talking to some new woman, and next thing he was slapping on after shave and grabbing his leather jacket.
To tell the truth, I’m glad of the break. It’s claustrophobic when he uses a first person narrator. He’s in my head all the time. And when he’s pounding the keyboard, it’s as if his fat fleshy fingers are paddling round inside me. But it’s so boring. He’s been stuck on page 254 for days. Writer’s block, he calls it. Don’t make me laugh. Writer’s lethargy. Writer’s lack of effort. Writer’s sheer ineptitude, if you ask me.
I’m staring into a mirror, and I’m examining my face now the bandages have come off. My eyes have disappeared under vicious-looking bruises and the scars in front of my ears are pink and obvious. Oh, and for good measure, I’m naked, because his publisher’s told him nudity sells. He’s going along with that, but really as he explained to Mark Lawson, he wants to write a critique of modern society’s preoccupation with celebrity and the whole style-over-content thing.
No, I don’t understand a word of it either, but he’s done a good job on me this time. I really feel like Jasmine Hill, thirty-seven year old winner of a reality show whose looks are going and who needs to take action if she’s to get a double-page spread in Hello magazine.
I’ve been in every novel he’s written in some form or another. He’s tried fantasy, thriller, romance, literary. In one, Sky Earth, (I was an environmentalist in that) he combined all sorts. The critics praised it for ‘cleverly resisting genre’, but it was the same old stuff really: a woman, past the first flush of youth, trying to make it in a world where men are powerful and youth is glorified. If you ask me, it’s all to do with his wife leaving him because he was going bald.
The thing that gets me is the praise that’s showered on him for writing from a woman’s perspective. ‘Sensitive understanding of the female psyche’, ‘I’d have sworn the writer was a woman’: that’s the sort of crap reviewers write. I wouldn’t mind, but they’re nearly all men, and what do they know about what women want?
Anyway, I help him write the books. He admits as much at these literary festivals he goes to. There’s a crowd of middle-aged women, and one of them will ask how he manages to make the female protagonist so believable. Do you know what he says? ‘I listen to the character and let her guide me.’ Too right! Most of the time he hasn’t got a clue. He draws mind-maps, goes for walks, drinks himself stupid, until finally I put him out of his misery. I do it at night. He always has a picture of me that he’s cut from some magazine on his bedside cabinet, so that he can ‘visualise me’. I whisper stuff while he’s asleep, and when he wakes up, he thinks he’s solved the problem.
The thing I can’t get him to understand is sex. He gets me all worked up and gagging for it. Then what does he do? Dot, dot, dot. Or I’m writhing around while some man does his stuff on top of me. Honestly, he’s clueless about female sexuality. Now, that’s why his wife really left him.
I shouldn’t be so bitter: I wouldn’t have a life at all without him. I’ve been a Russian double agent, a hooker in Amsterdam, an explorer in the Andes – not bad for a girl who started life as a mill worker in his historical novel phase. But when it comes down to it, all these characters are no more than side-kicks. No matter how beautiful, how daring, how dangerous, their only real purpose is to be eye-candy on the arm of the hero. I want to be a protagonist in my own right.
Yesterday he got a letter. He was in mid-sentence when the postman arrived, and he got up and walked away from the computer. He didn’t even click ‘save’. Last time he did that, there was a power cut. He’d just got me to the top of some mountain and the chapter was lost. He had to go right back to the bit where it said She raised her eyes to the rocky mountainside. The top was in cloud, a good four thousand feet away and I had to climb the whole damn thing again.
The letter was from a producer at Channel 4, and you’ll never guess, they’re only considering his last novel, Dark Morning, for some new arts programme, a sort of X-Factor for books. They say it will have the Richard & Judy effect on sales! Dark Morning’s the one where I’m a trapeze artist and it’s told back-to-front, the beginning is the end, if you see what I mean. Apparently a researcher’s coming round to interview him. I’ve never seen him so full of himself. He’s probably in some bar now revelling in his imminent success.
The problem is he’s gone off leaving me stuck in this hotel room, perched in front of a stupid mirror, and I’m starving. He never thinks about giving me food, unless it’s part of a seduction scene in a restaurant. I tried to get one of the maids to bring me sandwiches, but she says she doesn’t know where to go: she hasn’t even been downstairs. I ask you! Some characters can’t think for themselves. I’m freezing cold as well, with nipples as big as chapel hat pegs, as they say. If this is what it’s like now, what’s going to happen to me if Channel 4 actually select Dark Morning? He’ll be on the celebrity merry-go-round 24/7.
I’ve got an idea. I know what this researcher will look like. She’ll be about twenty-two, long blonde hair, glasses – she’s got to find some way to look intelligent – skirt up to her pubes, top down to her tits. Excuse the language, but I’m getting riled at the thought of it all. She’ll be just the type he goes for, and she’ll be flattered by the attentions of a famous writer. I’ve seen it before. When he’s in the grip of one of these love affairs, as he calls them, he forgets about the book – and me – for weeks at a time. I’m going to nip this in the bud. I’ll plant answers in his head. I can hear the conversation now:
RESEARCHER: (crossing her legs seductively) Where do you get your ideas from?
HIM: (suavely) Other books mainly.
RESEARCHER: (so shocked her skirt rides up still further) You mean you copy them?
HIM: (laughing boyishly) Of course not. Every text is an absorption and transformation of another.
RESEARCHER: (breathless, thinks she’s on to something) You’re talking about plagiarism?
HIM: (rattled) Christ, no! I’m talking parody; I’m talking pastiche; I’m talking palimpsest.
RESEARCHER: Palimp … what?
I can’t see him lasting much longer after that. He’ll accuse the researcher of being stupid. He’ll say if she wants to be called a researcher, then she should actually do some BLOODY RESEARCH. And that will be the end of that.
Then again, is it such a great idea to sabotage his chances? He’d probably have a breakdown if they refuse Dark Morning, and where will I be if he can’t write?
I need a plan. Something that means I don’t have to depend on him for my very existence. I know! Why the hell didn’t I think of it before? I’ll write my own book. It can’t be that difficult. I was a novelist in The Trials of Emma Sotherby, and I spent most of the time in the wine bar or hopping into bed with the hero. I say hopping into bed but sadly it was one of those dot, dot, dot affairs. I didn’t even see him with his boxers off.
Perhaps I could use some of the stuff I wrote as Emma Sotherby.
Here we go:
The baby was born at one minute to midnight on 31 December 1900, its birth straddling the day, the year and the century.
I’m sure that was the first sentence because I thought it was clever.
Outside the cottage, snow fell silently, covering the ground with myriad flakes of white confetti. Inside, the baby whimpered between its mother’s bloody thighs. It was a girl, a beautiful baby girl with thick dark hair, but her mother would never know that, for she was dead. The long hours of lonely labour had ended in a massive haemorrhage.
Now what? I’ve managed to kill off the heroine in the first paragraph and if someone doesn’t come to rescue the baby immediately, it’s going to die too. I need inspiration. What does he do? He checks his emails. That’s always good for whiling away an hour or so. But the only time I’ve sent emails was when I was Emma Sotherby, and I can hardly use firstname.lastname@example.org when I’m Jasmine Hill, reality star, in this novel.
I could do a google search to see how many times my name comes up. He does that a lot. But what’s the point? The only mention of me will be by him on his blog. What about a stimulant? Writers take a fair few of those to get through the sticky patches. A drink or a cigarette would be good. Emma Sotherby always had one or the other – or both – on the go. It was good fun, but I had a hacking cough by the time he got to the end of that novel.
I’ve got it! A man. A man arrives on the scene. He’s battled his way through the blizzard and he stumbles across the cottage. It’s barely visible in the driving snow, but he wipes the thick crust of flakes from one of the small windows and peers in. He can see the woman and immediately breaks down the door with one of his massive shoulders … Oh hell! Is that the best I can come up with? A hero charging to the rescue? I’d be scathing if he wrote that. Seems I need him as much as he needs me.
I’ll have to work harder on this Jasmine Hill novel, and I won’t sabotage his meeting with the Channel 4 researcher. If he gets accepted and makes a load of money, he can buy the villa in Italy he’s been lusting after.
And if Dark Morning is a runaway success, the publishers will want a sequel. I loved being a trapeze artist. The skimpy, skin-tight costumes. Flying through the air. The crowd below, hearts in their mouths, gazing up at me, me, ME, the star. I’ll be one of those memorable characters in novels, you know the sort whose names have gone down in history: Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, Maggie Tulliver … and me, Sofia Brabazon, artiste extraordinaire, up there with them.
So, now can you see why I’m scared? What will my characters have got up to while I’ve ignored/neglected them? Has Marsha told her parents about her job in London yet? Has Ollie gone completely off the rails and blown his chances with Jess? Nothing for it – I’ll have to face my neglected characters and start writing.