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Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Where do those stories go?

I've been reading a fantasy novel recently by a certain author who, out of courtesy as I think the book is bad, shall remain nameless. However, it's called to mind a question which I feel a little too old to answer.

Reading the book, which was very Mary Sue, I found myself continually muttering 'keep it in the maths book' - or math book, I suppose, for my American friends. Now, I know what I meant by that. I said it to my boyfriend, who's the same age as me and also knew what I meant by it. (Mind you, he's used to my ramblings.) I'd guess that it would be possible for someone my age to work out if they'd heard my complaints about the book. But would it make sense to a Teen of Today?

When I was in my early teens, y'see, the Internet hadn't quite kicked in. It was there, but you had to be very techie to know about it; it only caught on when I was at the end of my teens and into my twenties. In any case, there was a recurring figure in schools that I think many people would recognise: the kid who sat quietly in class writing what was usually a fantasy novel in a spare math(s) notebook when they were supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. I wasn't one of them, but I remember reading over shoulders and hearing them discussed. Now, given that these were early attempts at writing, naturally they weren't as polished in style as the work of an experienced forty-year-old pro would be, and they tended to have a fair bit of wish-fulfillment in them. The bad fantasy book I was reading felt wishful and rather immature for a book by an adult writer, hence my complaint that the author should have kept it in the maths book. (I would have been bloody impressed if I'd seen a thirteen-year-old with a book of that standard in their maths book, mark you. Writing like a thirteen-year-old is fine when you're thirteen.)

But does that idea mean anything any more, or has the Net outmoded it? What I'm really wondering is whether tomorrow, teenagers who feel the urge to write fantasy stories for their own amusement will do what we did and scam a spare notebook from the store cupboard, using it as cover during their least-favourite class, or whether they'll simply go off to the computer room at school or go back home and type up stories under the pretence of doing their homework, and then stick them on the Internet. Has the Net killed the notebook? What's going on? I feel a little old and out of touch, so if anybody feels like enlightening me I'd be most grateful.

Come to that, I'd also be interested to hear where the maths-book novels led. The stories I got to see in my school were written by people who are now of the doctors-and-lawyers persuasion, rather than writers. I, on the other hand, am the one who's just jacked in a perfectly sensible job to be a full-time writer - but my maths book contained nothing but badly-done mathematics. I wrote when English teachers set writing assignments, and I read everything I could get my hands on, but my first novel was begun in my early twenties, not my early teens, and certainly not begun quietly at the back of the classroom. I don't think it would have worked, for one thing - I tend to zone out when I write, on a time-ratio of pretty much exactly three to one. If I think I've been writing for ten minutes, half an hour has passed; if I think I've been writing for half an hour, then it's an hour and a half; it's gotten to the stage where I automatically correct my estimate, saying 'I just need another five - excuse me, another fifteen minutes.' With this time frame, I generally need more time than I'd think; there was a point when I had a commute that lasted an hour and three quarters in each direction to my job, and I was trying to write on the train - but the train journey was only half an hour, and everything I wrote was rubbish: it just wasn't enough time to work up the concentration. I suspect attempts to write during a half-hour class, while keeping one eye on the teacher, would have been subject to similar laws, in my case at least. But then again, other writers have entirely different concentration patterns, and maybe that train setting would have been perfect for them.

So where are those maths-book stories now? How many professional writers started with notebooks tucked between a science book and a Bunsen burner? How many classroom novelists decided to call it a day once they left school and no longer needed to make their own entertainment during dull classes? And if you're thirteen years old in 2006 and have a yen to write your own story, where do you go to write it? I intend to conduct an informal survey (just because I wasn't writing fiction during science classes doesn't mean I was any good at them, so a formal survey is a bit beyond me), and I'd love to hear from anyone who has an opinion. I'm going to keep asking this question at intervals, I think . . .

I never wrote in class, I tended to doodle, usually people with large teeth and visible gums. Maybe I was meant to be a cartoonist. Or a dentist. I think in my early teens I was reluctant to write anything, really, keeping my stories tucked in the folds of my brain. Whether this was shyness or some kind of perverse selfishness I can't be certain, as most of my childhood memories fell off the back of my head years ago, pushed out by movie trivia and Simpsons episode synopses.
I did a lot of story-telling in my head, too. Partly due to lack of confidence, but mainly because the stories were my escape from the real world so writing them down would have been like putting up a huge signpost to my private bolt-hole. I didn't make serious attempts at fiction-writing until I was in my twenties, although (I squirm to remember it) I did write poetry in a school exercise book, and let people read it.
That sounds familiar. I remember writing one poem in a notebook and finding it years later ... it was an earnest debate between burning it to ensure no one ever saw it, and keeping as a stark reminder in case I ever started getting above myself. I think I kept it for a while, but threw it out in the end. At least, I hope it's not still hanging around somewhere. If anyone ever saw it, I'd have to change my name and go into hiding, and I've only just finished repainting my bathroom.

Funny though, if I'm doodling away with a story in my head, it's a pretty safe bet that it won't make it to the page. It tends to have gotten stale by the time I write it down. I have to do all my thinking with my pen if it's going to be any good at all. Or my keyboard. Too much of a temptation to skate over the difficult bits when I'm daydreaming stories, I think, and it's grappling with the difficult bits that forces me to come up with better writing. If I can't write those bits down, they tend to be difficult not to lose track of. I just get confused.
That's very true. A story raised in the zero gravity environment of the imagination often turns out to have hollow bones that get crunched to shards in the real world. I need to keep reminding myself of that.
The bolt-hole situation is also familiar to me. Some of the most successful fantasy novels are ones that give you the feeling that you're being taken to the author's secret treehouse.
Agh, simile overdose...
Which can be either a very cool thing or a rather embarrassing one. The book that ticked me off enough to start this whole chain of association was rather like looking into somebody's treehouse and finding they'd forgotten to tidy away their stack of Playboys: I kind of found out more about the author's fantasy life than I was comfortable with knowing. Comes back to the idea that there's a difference between daydreams and artistic imagination; I think some of the worst fantasy feels like daydreams written down rather that capital-R wRiting. Though in a well-constructed and nicely appointed treehouse, of course, the view is just beautiful - and up there in someone's private space, you can see things you'd never have seen from the ground. What do you reckon, Claire? Was the instinct to hide the in-head stories because you felt the treehouse needed tidying before you could show it, or was it just that you wanted your own private space that didn't have anyone else's personality in it? Or, come to that, is that none of my darn business? :-)
It was mainly the idea of private space. I have three siblings and the house we grew up in was small so the only space I had that wasn't being constantly invaded was the bit between my ears. Also, though, it never occurred to me that I could write. My parents always told me I had no imagination and until I was 18 everyone thought I was going to be a music teacher.

You're absolutely right about daydreaming and imagination. Most of the stories I dreamed up as a child wouldn't stand up to scrutiny now, even if I could remember them. I'll still 'daydream' scenes just to get a feel for how characters are behaving but I generally never know if a story is going to work until the first draft is on paper.
Aha. Did any of those stories feature tiresome siblings meeting a well-deserved fate? I have fond memories of my father making up stories about a character called 'Lady Lizard' for me when I was about four - the starting adventure involved her elder brother being rude to her and then a much bigger lizard coming along and beating him up until he was really, really sorry he hadn't been nicer. Man, I loved that story. As a four-year-old, that is; I think I'd prefer my brother not to get beaten up nowadays.

(It was about lizards because we were on holiday in a house in France that had these cute little lizards in the garden, which I was fascinated by. Those were some great lizards.)
Ah, the revenge on siblings scenario. I wish I'd thought of giant lizards. Another reliable stand-by was the story in which it was suddenly discovered I was the secret child of spies/assassins/explorers and whisked off to a glamorous new life. The irony is that most people think I really do have a glamorous life now and refuse to believe my assertions to the contrary.
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