Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘writing

The Panicking Basil Plant (in which Not an Odalisque uses too many metaphors)

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The last few weeks, I’ve felt like a wilted basil plant in a sauce of water. Basil plants aren’t fickle like bonsai trees or orchids, they suck the water up so fast you can watch the level drop, and their leaves are plump and green again within minutes. I’d been scared that I’d got into lazy habits, and would never quite get back to my normal self again. As I get better, though, I find that I don’t have to fore myself to do things. I’ve regained my ability to feel enthusiasm.

My novel is lying fallow as I churn out quick, simple spanking tales. It’s part of my plan to trick myself into activity by ignoring anything big and scary. Bank statements, work emails, overdue library books, dresses in need of mending, car insurance renewals, letters from the hospital, rising damp, difficult texts and emails asking about scheduling are all being ignored. New creative projects without an identifiable market (or competitors), pretty dresses, photo shoots, trips to the swimming pool and double macchiatos are all being pursued with enthusiasm.have to fore myself to do things. I’ve regained my ability to feel enthusiasm.

This is great progress. Every couple of days I find myself swept on a wave of activity, planning and general fizz at the possibilities. I rush to the library, type fast through lunch, read stories, type more, edit. I leave light headed, wondering why I’m hungry, and sometimes convince the lover to buy me a piece of cake and more coffee at the station, while I tell him about the exciting things I’ve done, the exciting things I’m planning. At home, I fiddle with another aspect of the project, or another project entirely. The lover makes me dinner, points out it’s time for bed. I don’t want to sleep, I want to tell him about all the new ideas I’ve had, I want him to tell me how to fix a technical problem or who is going to want this anyway, when I’ve finished it. Then, with the sudden, horrible thought that I’m wasting my time, real life comes crashing in. I still haven’t returned my library books, my aunt’s phone calls, the school skirts from Marks and Spencer. I’m not earning enough to pay the bills, and I’m concentrating all my efforts on pointless projects. I’m tired and my eyes hurt. I lie awake thinking up new ideas I don’t write down because the rising bubble they make in my stomach is soon popped by the thought of what I’m going to say to the doctors, or how I’m going to make it to work with this headache.


Twice last week I managed to whip the stress to such a pitch that I gave myself a migraine. The day-glo cherry on top was that, one of those times, the cost of migraine drugs was a contributing anxiety.

I suspect a bit of mania can be good for writing, but how does one integrate it into kink? I have the enthusiasm for play, without any level-headedness, without the self-awareness to negotiate, to subtly move the scene along, or provide self-care. My recent scenes have been a bit hit-and-miss, and when they have worked I deflate immediately afterwards, starving, exhausted, confused. So that’s another worry to keep me up at night. How long can I carry on writing about kink, without doing any?

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm

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Lies and Fictions

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Readers of this blog might wonder how much of what I write is true. I have a lovely unpublished comment from a time when I criticised someone with a serious following, accusing me of lying to pursue my own ends (unfortunately not elucidating what those ends are, which is a pity, as this blog could do with some ends). More of you will wonder whether I do the things I say I do. I admit that I tweak the truth. Sometimes I rearrange the order of events, more often I omit things to make a post clearer. I guess at the exact wording of conversations, and I play up emotions to give stories tension. Come to think of it, I do that last one in real life.

Telling the truth is easy when I’m the only one involved. With other people, it’s a bit trickier. Different people have different expectations of what is private and what’s public. Many years ago a girlfriend’s father had a spot of trouble after his secretary stole a lot of money and ran away. He had to give up his job, his daughter began to wonder whether he could afford her education. I told my best friend about it; my girlfriend was livid. Family troubles were private. She thought it so obvious that there was no need to tell me that.

In general, I take people’s preferences into account when writing or talking about them. I don’t publicise the address of the play partner who likes to keep his identities separate. I don’t tell you about the Lover’s deep emotional trauma from his stint in the Spanish Inquisition* I will tell you that he has a habit of putting dirty crockery on the draining board, which makes me want to hide forks in his shoes.** People’s preferences can’t, and shouldn’t be the only influence on how they are represented, though. Others seeing who you are and what you do is one of those unfortunate risks you take when leaving the house and interacting with people. If you spend the afternoon telling sexist jokes, I’m afraid it isn’t my job to check that you won’t be hurt when other people hear about it.

And that’s tough, because it applies to me, too. I wrote some time ago about a scene in which I failed to recite a poem I’d boasted about knowing weeks before, and was inordinately upset about my failure. Afterwards I asked the only witness not to tell anyone; I was ashamed, I didn’t want to be judged. He refused to keep my secret. Was I hurt? Yes. Did I dispute his right to tell the world about the incident which showed my arrogance and ignorance? No. I did go over the poem another couple of times, though.

In the blog, I tell the story, usually without the names, and given how few people I know in person read the blog, people’s privacy is relatively safe. It’s much more difficult in fiction, because fiction’s meant to be truthful and fictional.

I don’t know anything except from experience (and Hume). Perhaps you, as Descartes or Plato or Chomsky believe, know the nature of God or geometry or grammar from before birth, but I, sadly, don’t, especially the geometry, as my Maths teachers would testify. So if I’m going to tell you any sort of truth about the world in my writing, it’s going to have to be from experience. That isn’t to say that I’m going to write autobiographically. It’s called fiction for a reason, and I’m looking at you, Martin Amis, because I had to sit through your boring descriptions of Hollywood both in Money and during your long reminiscence at an author talk. Joining the dots between Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and his autobiography, though, was more interesting, because everything had been shifted around and given a new meaning. Books don’t need to spring, fully formed out of your imagination. Down that road lies drafts of poems stuffed in hedges and fabricated persons from Porlock.

In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t write straight from your imagination. The two most boring types of narrative are purely imaginative: dreams and sexual fantasies. Don’t believe me? Go and look at the fantasy-sharing groups on Fetlife. Tell me if you manage to stay awake through three posts. Imagination isn’t bad. If you want to write (or dream, or even fantasise) about interplanetary war between 200 foot cat people and miniaturised mechanical penguins, feel free, but it won’t be interesting until you’ve used your experience to tell us what it feels like to be the 180 foot cat person, or what the penguins are really fighting for. And that’s because it won’t, otherwise, be truthful. Excuse me while I go and pitch that idea.

When you’re writing, though, what are the people around you meant to think? I use your boyfriend’s interesting career choice for a character who turns out to be a lying, cheating bastard. Am I accusing your boyfriend of that? No, it’s not him! So why not take out all the things that are like anyone I’ve ever known? Because the things I know are the only truths I have to share. And because in the case of a few lying, cheating bastards, I don’t mind if they recognise themselves. They aren’t going to sue, I’ve also put in that they have small willies.***

Writing, for me, in blog posts or fiction, is about trying to say something more than, ‘this happened.’ At the very least, I’m aiming at, ‘this happened and it was amusing,’ or even better, ‘this happened and it was a bit like something in your life, seen in a different way.’ That’s why I stand by my right to tell lies about myself, and truths about everyone else.


*Some details have been changed to protect relationships.

**In the interests of balance, I should probably share the fact that I, apparently, have no patience, don’t listen to reason, get crumbs in the bed and then complain about them, and let the plug hole get blocked up with rice.

***This is a lie for the purposes of humour. I haven’t done this at all, but I have admitted that I sometimes tweak the truth in blog posts. If you can believe me.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 11, 2012 at 11:27 am

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If You Read This, You’ll Discover I’m A Monster

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I think that if you met me you would believe that I’m a nice girl. Middle class. Rather shy. Prone to thinking that everyone has read Byron and agrees on the importance of soup spoons. On the first day of my course nice women mothered me and bought me bakewell tart. That’s the girl they bought it for.

Now and again other parts slip out. I forget that in a discussion about pole dancing you shouldn’t admit that you’ve actually seen any, and especially shouldn’t admit that you were in a lesbian bar in Soho at the time. I forget that reading ‘120 Days of Sodom’ on the train will get me funny looks. Mostly, I forget that there are a number of topics you’re meant to come at sideways, and shock people with frankness where they expected allusion.

In everyday life, it isn’t too difficult to keep parts of myself separate. I remember to be nice to my granny when she asks why I haven’t got a nice boy, and don’t need to additionally remind myself not to tell her I don’t want a nice boy, but a big, nasty man who’ll do unspeakable things to me. I don’t need to talk about Kristeva’s theory of abjection when I call Estates to report a blocked toilet. I remember who I’m speaking to, and everything flows from there.

That isn’t the case with writing. When you write something down, anyone can read it, but you’ll never write that sex scene with your granny sitting on your shoulder. In fact, you’ll never write anything if you’re trying to please everyone, and everyone, you see, is your potential audience. Will Milly from the chip shop appreciate that parody of the Commedia dell’arte? I doubt it. Your old tutor, though, author of numerous books on the subject, will probably laugh at your childish attempts. It’s best to put them all out of your mind.

So I conjure an ideal reader. You, dearest, are a reader of Byron, an owner of soup spoons (possibly also a supplier, have you any spare?) and a lover of bakewell tart. You aren’t scandalised by pole dancing or kink, and you’ve read at least the first half of ‘The Powers of Horror’, you’ve met Columbine and Harlequin. You’re perfect, and you’ll reinvent yourself tomorrow when I begin another piece.

If you’re reading this and you don’t fit that description, I consider that to be your problem. There are people whose opinions matter to me very deeply, but all of them have got better things to do than read my ramblings. The rest of you will just have to take me as I am.

If only it were always that way. I’m taking a Creative Writing course. Now and again I have to sit in a room with your readers. Talk to them, lunch with them, see them drink soup from polystyrene cups. How are they going to react if my stories aren’t nice?

I’m not nice. I’m rather monstrous. If I’m to render an honest account of my experience (and it’s the only experience I have to offer) then that monstrosity is going to come out one way or another. I can’t see a way around that. I’ve found myself to be really very bad at writing poems about flowers.

You might say (although you won’t, if you’re my ideal reader) that I should try harder on the flower poems. My thinking is this: Women spend an awful lot of their time pretending not to be the monsters they are (no doubt men do, too); we pluck and shave, bite our tongues and paint our faces, and keep quiet about desire or periods or hating having to do the washing up. It hasn’t done us very much good. It’s one of the reasons we’re still stuck not only with the image of women as beautiful, good and pure, but also with having to do the dishes. To fall in with society’s expectations is to deny what we are, and, in some sense, to tell a lie. The right to write about our whole selves has been fought for in the courts and won. That means that I get the chance to read ‘Baise-Moi’ and think “fuck, yeah!”

The best story I’ve written recently includes a rape. It includes the word “purpling”. It is filled with sticky sexual anecdotes which may not be true to the letter, but are true to the spirit, of things that happened to me. I want to hand it in, but I’m gripped by this anxiety: what will people think of me?

Did Nabokov worry that people would think he was a paedophile? Shakespeare a poisoner? Dostoevsky a thief? Tolstoy an adulterer? I don’t know. It seems quite likely that, soon, all the people on my course will think I’m a weirdo. Perhaps then, in search of acceptance, I’ll begin to value you, my darling, perfect, reader.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm

What I Did In My Bank Holiday, Part One: Anticipation.

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I write this sitting on a very sore bottom.*I went away for the Bank Holiday weekend. Like most people, I sat in traffic jams and swore at caravans, unlike most, I was spanked.

I went to visit HH. Well, partly to visit HH, and partly to see his house, which he describes as “a CP fairyland.” When internet users try to show off about their collections of kinky paraphernalia, posting pictures of items spread on carpets and duvets, they strike me as paltry and self-indulgent, but a whole house? That has promise.

I was fairly worried before I set off. I’ve had more kinky experiences than some, but my knowledge is very limited, nonetheless. Mostly, I’ve found myself reassuring self-identified non-kinky people as they “experiment”. It’s not that I don’t like being tied up and lightly swatted by someone who is constantly asking if what they’re doing is ok, but it’s hardly the stuff thrilling nightmares are made of. I wanted something more. I wanted someone with an authoritative presence and a hard hand. At the very least, someone who knew what they were doing, and were sure they wanted to do it. HH checked the boxes, but he clinched it with his stories. He suggested role-play scenarios which really got to me, terrifying, exciting narratives which made it difficult for me to meet his eye.

Stories are one thing, being beaten is another. There is one major obstacle to spanking me. I don’t like pain. I really, really, don’t like pain. I’m never brave about it. I screech and cry and look around for sympathy. So I was sure that I would be a disappointment to an experienced player. At worst, I would have to call a halt early on, admit to my incredible wussiness and ruin the whole weekend. Perhaps he would spend the whole time thinking that this was a pale shadow of what he really wanted, but, unable to tell me to go away, administer the odd pat at regular intervals until it was time for me to leave.

There wasn’t much I could do about that, so I channelled my anxiety into other things. What should I take as a ‘thank you for having me’ present? Is the present I’ve chosen adequate? Can I think of a pretty way of packaging it? (it wasn’t, and I didn’t). Am I going to end up in a state of undress, which is important because I don’t have three days worth of matching underwear? Should I, therefore, buy some matching underwear just in case? Will he serve instant coffee? Should I put the cafetiere in the car in case he does, or trust in his self-declared snobbishness? How would I introduce the cafetiere if he does get the Nescafe out? Do I have any suitable clothing for the scenes we’ve talked about? What did they wear in the 1940s, anyway? Will he think very badly of me and my lack of authenticity?

I could go on.

I hate to be a disappointment, and I was sure I was going to be. It was my only certainty about the weekend. When I arrived, late, dishevelled, and rather tired, I didn’t know what was coming next. Then something wonderful happened: he made a cafetiere of coffee.

Of all the scenarios we had spoken of the first time we met, one had stuck in my mind. He speculated on the fate of an evacuee, finding herself in the home of an influential man in a remote village, unable to escape whatever he has in store for her. I don’t know why that one stayed with me, but two nights later I was awake in the early hours of the morning jotting down notes about plot and character. A few days after that I had five thousand words of first draft, a heroine called Marianne, cast of minor characters and a difficult scene approaching in which I would have to describe something I’d never experienced. How was a novice like me to write a spanking scene?

I’d emailed HH a short plot summary. His role-play scenario had been hijacked and was now being driven not only by my perverse mind, but the literary influences of Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier and Sarah Waters. I really didn’t know what he would make of it, and there was no way I was going to poke my head over the parapet and lose the protection of literature as an excuse for my less savoury thoughts. So what he was expecting, I did not know.

I successfully avoided the subject for some time. There was coffee to be drunk, lunch to eat, historic buildings to look at, and you’d be surprised how much time can be spent enquiring into the correct operation of a shower or the organisation of a library. Eventually, though, the topic loomed large and I succumbed.

He declared that we would perform the first punishment scene from my plot, with some adjustments. A variation on the Bluebeard tale, but with books instead of dead wives and a good, hard spanking rather than decapitation. He provided a costume: a dress a size too small, made of thin fabric, with short sleeves, so that I felt rather exposed and shivery. Then I was left, alone, without the protective worries about presents or outfits to shield me.

When I went downstairs, I was going to be spanked. He was preparing to do exactly that, as I paced my room. I eyed the wooden hairbrush on the dressing table with unease. I stopped at the window and tried to draw in some air, but standing still was too difficult. I’d signed up for this; he was going to hurt me. He wanted to hurt me. Worse than that, he was probably going to pull me over his knee and feel me precariously squirming on his lap, staring at the carpet, while he had an embarrassingly clear view of my bottom. I couldn’t imagine coming out of that with much dignity. Mostly, though, I was terrified about the pain. Why on earth had I agreed to this? Was it too late to put it off for a day, an hour or just five minutes? Too late to call it off?

From downstairs I heard him call my name. In an even tone he said, “Would you come here, please?” I descended and stopped, just outside the door. I stood there in silence. Then an evacuee called Marianne opened the door and stepped inside the room.

*Well, not very sore, since it’s been a couple of days, but I’ve wanted to write that line ever since I read ‘I Capture the Castle’ and I’m not going to let the facts get in the way.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 6, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Living With My Characters

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One of the things I love about writing is indulging my runaway imagination. It’s not daydreaming, it’s productive visualisation! Another of the things I love about it is the way that my own life can be cut up and stuck back together in different ways to create something much more meaningful (hopefully) than the original experience. The problem, I find, is when the two come together.

I didn’t realise that I could be a writer until I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography. I noticed that his magic realism was created by relating incidents from his life out of order and without the background information which would make them coherent, and I thought ‘I can do that!’ I don’t have to make something out of nothing; I don’t have to write in a vacuum. I can take characters and situations from my real life, and no one is going to brandish a manuscript at me shouting, “you’re not a real writer. You didn’t create this character, I can tell it’s my Aunt Marg!” In fact, my published friends tell me that Aunt Margs and their friends are excessively pleased to see themselves in print, to the point of deluding themselves that they are the models for characters they do not resemble.

So when I’m writing a story I sometimes pick a personal experience, which comes with its own cast of real people who I adapt to my requirements. Similarly, when I need a character, I often cast around my acquaintance for someone who fits the bill. Don’t worry, almost everyone is changed beyond recognition as I tweak and stretch them into who I need them to be.

All of this means that I spend a lot of time daydreaming about people. Add to that this fact: I haven’t had sex since January.

Don’t imagine that I am sad about my celibacy. I’m revelling in fresh-smelling sheets and the freedom to do what I want without having to notify anyone. I’m not even seeking casual sex, since I find myself a much more reliable provider of pleasure than almost anyone else.

That said, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, sexual deprivation does lead me to notice sexual possibilities a lot more. And I, for the sake of my writing, have given my mind permission to go wandering off down these garden paths.

For example, there is a beautiful woman at my dance class. She is an excellent dancer. She is curvy, she has a pretty face and a tiny waist. She wears tight, tight dresses with low necklines and high hemlines. I don’t know how everyone else in the room is doing, but I have to make a conscious effort not to stare fixedly at her for the duration of the evening. And she’s the sort of girl where looking immediately leads to thoughts of touching.

I don’t know her name. I’ve never spoken to her, and I probably never will. I have, however, put her in a story. I wanted an object of forbidden lust for my main character, and there she was, ready-made and lust-inducing. She made it very easy to write the sex scenes. The only thing I worry about is my inability to look her in the eye. To be fair, it has always been difficult to drag my gaze up that far.

My imaginative investment in my mystery dancing girl has been productive. Sometimes, though, one thinks around in circles for a long time without working out precisely where the idea is going, and it never reaches paper. Such is the case with mystery dancer number two.

I have been told this man’s name more than once and forgotten it. One dances with a lot of men at classes and freestyles, and just to confuse you they change their clothes, sometimes halfway through the evening, and they often pop up at venues where you weren’t expecting to see them. I’ve given up trying to keep track. This man stuck in my mind because I found myself unintentionally flirting with him. The next week he flirted with me, while I tried to look demure. After that, I spent a week fantasising about him.

I don’t mean sexual fantasies. I always think it is a little rude to use real people as mental masturbation aids. A man once told me that I’d “given” him roughly thirty orgasms in a month. Not only did I think the numbers were probably inflated (did the man have no porn!?) and not only did I think that it demonstrated obsession rather than affection, but I also felt just a little violated. This is my body. If we’ve been together you’re entitled to the odd memory-wank, but this is icky. And, I imagine, sticky.

So I don’t mean that I settle down with my toy collection and conjure up images. In fact, it is much worse than that. I’ve invented a whole life for him: A history, hobbies and interests, friends and family members, a career, a taste for beef and beer stew, a best friend’s punky lesbian daughter. He’s taken me for days out at stately homes. He’s refused to come to a strip club with me as research for my novel. He’s invited me to dinner parties where I’ve been terrifically bored all night but made up for it by supplying a great breakfast. We had a terrible fight after I got uptight about the age gap, and he got angry with me for snogging his best friend’s daughter or smoking in his bedroom (it wasn’t entirely clear which, I’d done both), but we reconciled. He’s never taken me shopping, because he hates it so much. All of his bed linen is white.

So in my life there are two people about whom I know a set of real facts and a set of fictional facts. Both are important and relevant to me, but the fiction has a much stronger relation to my everyday life. One of them is already in a story, so I need to remember the fictions and add to them as she develops. The man may never make it onto the page, but he might, so I can’t abandon him yet, and in any case I am sure that he will influence some of my other characters. I don’t want to give him up.

Not only does this mean that I have to be very vigilant at separating the fact from the fiction when I do see these people face to face (enquiring after the health of imaginary family members would look foolish, for example), but I also have to guard against emotional indiscretions. When I saw my older man across the hall last week I felt a rush of affection. Then I remembered that he didn’t exist, so I avoided him for the rest of the night.

Do you find yourself living more in fantasy than reality? How do you maintain the divide? Let me know, just so I can be sure that I’m not fantasising my readers, too.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 11, 2010 at 10:02 pm

My Imaginary Lap Dancer

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I write stories. I try to tackle the issues people debate in the abstract with a personal approach. One of my characters has decided that she’s going to work at a lap dancing club. I hadn’t planned it, but it seems like an interesting path. Feminist writers and bloggers have a lot to say on the topic, as do campaign groups like Object. It is much harder to find the views of the people who work in the industry, or the clients. My personal experience is limited to seeing some pole dancing once in a lesbian club in Soho.

Why am I writing about something I haven’t experienced? If I don’t, then all I will ever produce is my autobiography. I think it is going to be interesting in terms of understanding gender construction, objectification, power relationships and sexuality, all of which are my area. We’ll see what happens.

I need more input. Have you ever worked doing lap dancing or pole dancing? Have you ever paid for these services? I want to hear from you. I realise that the experience is not uniform, the people, their motivations, what goes on at work all varies. Nonetheless, my character is a representation of people who seem to be talked about more than heard. If I have more information she can be a better representation.

I will take anything I can get. How did you get into it? How do you spend your time at work? What are the good bits, which bits don’t you like? Do you feel that it changes other people’s perceptions of you? How do you feel about your employers and the customers? Anything you want to tell me will be welcomed.

For the customers, I would love to know what your time at a club is like, what you enjoy about it, how the experience makes you feel, or whatever you want to share.

I don’t need anyone to tell me “lap dancing is wrong because…” I already know those arguments. If your story ends with “boo” or “yay” that’s great, though.

You can post in the comments section or email me at For this, I offer you my everlasting gratitude. Many, many thanks.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 3, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Judge Me

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Whenever I share my ambition to become a writer, I get the same reaction. Raised eyebrows and sneering lips communicate a belief that I am deluded and that I have little chance of success. Writing is, indeed, a difficult career. Law and medicine are, too, but I’ve never seen a law student get that reaction. So what is the difference between a wannabe lawyer and a wannabe writer?

To become a barrister, you must be selected for the Bar Professional Course, pass some pretty tough exams, find a law firm willing to take you on for a pupillage and one willing to offer you a job. Writers become writers when they get published. They then remain writers, a mostly undifferentiated mass including those who struggle on with a full time job and a pile of rejected second novels, and those who could retire on their earnings from speaking engagements their fame has brought. Only those at the very pinnacle of the profession, the J.K Rowlings and Margaret Atwoods of this world, are visibly different.

I’m sure that wannabe writers have asked their friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to comment on their work. My friends are terribly nice about my scribblings, I’m sure theirs are, too. Writers don’t have to jump the hurdles and hoops of professions like law, so the first nay-sayer is likely to be an agent or editor.

I had an excruciating dinner with an editor once. She wanted to hear about my career plans. I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to be a writer. Listening to her stories, she seemed to be besieged by amateur writers proffering manuscripts, taxi drivers reciting their synopsis as they drove her through London and dinner party guests saying “let me tell you what happened to me, I’m sure it would make a great novel.” Her area was children’s books. I didn’t want anything from her, except possibly for her to cough up for the expensive bottle of wine she had ordered. But would she know that? I told her I didn’t know what to do next, and maintained the position throughout some fairly intensive interrogation. She gave me the number of a life coach who may be able to help.

The reason my editor friend feels besieged is that she is the first (or possibly the second, counting agents) hurdle for the aspiring writer. We haven’t been weeded out, like the law students, and sent off to do other things because we got bad GCSEs or A Levels. There’s a girl in my writing class who doesn’t know that she should capitalise “I” (as in myself). How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of her manuscript? How many more are there like that one? In many ways this system promotes equality. I was shocked, on going to a law graduation at Lincoln’s Inn, to find that while most of the graduates were female and Asian, the people handing out certificates were male and white. Writing isn’t free of discrimination, but judgement based on a manuscript provides fewer opportunities for it. On the other hand, sitting alone at your desk, you don’t get much encouragement, either.

So there are hordes of wannabe writers at the publisher’s gates. Some don’t have the basic rules of grammar pinned down; some have postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing. All of them think they have something unique to contribute, otherwise they wouldn’t persevere. The problem is that some of them can’t write. Or they haven’t yet. The only thing that will vindicate any of us is a book deal. With a book deal, we will ascend to the ranks of Real Writers, and we will be able to write snooty articles like this one from our elevated position. No longer will we be lumped together with the people who don’t capitalise “I” or think that the hallmark of good prose is a preponderance of adjectives. It will make the hours of work and the RSI worthwhile. Thus is becomes a kind of Holy Grail for writers. They obsess over the perfect covering letter, the layout of a manuscript, the colour of envelopes and the right number of Hail Marys. Jane Wenham-Jones pretended that she’d been invited to send her manuscript to an agent she met at a non-existent party. She writes of another who sent her first three chapters inside a cardboard cactus.

The problem, of course, is that publishers aren’t litmus testers for artistic merit (of literature or cacti), they are businesses trying to make money. They will buy your book if they think they can sell it. Some of them are better than others. Some of them are good at some of it, and aren’t interested in books about unicorns, even if they could win the Booker. Some of them just make silly mistakes. So not only is the colour of your envelopes unlikely to make a difference, the impact of brilliant writing is mitigated, too.

In my experience, wannabe authors respond to this truth about the publishing industry in one of two ways: denial or anger (do some of them move on to bargaining or depression? Absolutely). Those in denial continue sending out their multi-genre epic parody of a little known Slovakian writer, sure that, given its obvious merit, it will surely sell and its brilliance be confirmed. The angry ones curse the agents, the editors, and the whole evil system which has not regard for Art, only celebrity names and big tits. Quite seriously, I told someone recently that I wanted to be a writer, and she said “well, it will be easy for you.” I asked why. “You’re young and pretty,” she said, “they don’t want someone like me on the dustcover.”

Why won’t we accept it? I think it has something to do with the amount of ourselves that we pour onto the paper. Most professions create a distance between the professional self and the personal. We have power suits and uniforms to tell us that we are in a role, offices to remind us that we are in a public space. When companies try to manipulate our behaviour by introducing ‘fun time’ or dress-down Fridays, for example, or replacing every wall with a sheet of glass, as they did in my father’s office, they draw even more attention to the fact that you are expected to play your role. It isn’t like that for writers. Most writers are trying to say something that is important to them. Most writers are drawing on their own experiences. They don’t get to hide the experiences that make them look bad and they have to poke the places that hurt. Otherwise, we may as well go home and let Orwell’s Versificators do the work. Writing is in many ways an exercise in self-revelation. It is a confession. When we send it out, on some level it is not our work, but ourselves, that are being judged. No wonder we find it hard to cope with; who gets to put a price on me?

Augustine invited God’s judgement of his writing. Rousseau preferred to give that power to the general public. Who gets to judge mine? This week, the admissions tutors at the University of East Anglia. Wish me luck!

Written by Not an Odalisque

February 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Dear Reader

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I’m taking a break from Myths About Sex for a while. Not because there aren’t many more myths to tackle, but because I think it is getting a bit tired. I promise you one about racial stereotyping at some point. In the meantime, we’ll talk of other things.

As you know, I write stories and poems. I even have the first fifteen thousand words of a novel, which I am slowly butchering for short story material, making it ultimately unusable. Writers, as you know, are inherently vain, arrogant individuals, nursing a belief that the world has some interest in what they have to say. Thus I check my blog stats with alarming frequency, ask the opinion of anyone who mentions glancing at it, and thrust my stories into the unwilling hands of potential readers. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but I do seek the opinions of others in the hope of improving my writing. It is finding suitable readers which proves to be the problem.

I can detect bad writing in any genre, but not necessarily good. While the rules of grammar apply equally to lesbian gothic and instruction manuals, the rules of plotting, pace, structure and characterisation do not. We do not expect our instruction manuals to gain speed and intensity or deal with themes of seeming and the unheimlich. If you give me your instruction manual to critique, my input will probably be quite limited.

This must be the experience of all readers. When, say, a detective fiction reader comes across one of my pieces on Writewords (where writers can critique each others’ work), he must feel ill-equipped to comment on certain aspects of it, just as I often refrain from commenting on work which, if I found it when flicking through a volume in a shop, would cause me to return the book to the shelf. Sometimes I share my uninformed thoughts nonetheless. Presumably others do the same. To use this as an excuse to dismiss criticism is dangerous, however. After all, the definition of unpublishable is surely that everyone who glances at it in a bookshop would put it back down.

So how do you distinguish the useful criticisms from the less useful ones? The first reader of one of my short stories completely missed its point because she didn’t pick up on the previous marriages of one of my characters. I amended it. The second reader commented that I didn’t have to hammer the marriages home. Who should I listen to? Another short story provoked strong words on Writewords. It features a rape scene narrated from the point of view of the rapist. Most readers find the victim of the rape perplexing: why isn’t she more suspicious of the rapist beforehand?; does she implicitly invite rape?; why doesn’t she resist more? One person went so far as to say it read like a titillating account of pseudo sexual violence, rather than a realistic account. I had intended to write about the subtleties and complexities of rape, to come to some understanding of what motivates a person to that action and to consider the factors contributing to becoming a victim of it. Other people found in my words a view of rape they disapproved of, one which implied that victims are complicit in their own rape and sexual violence is fun. That is not what I intended to write, but once the text is finished, it floats free, independent of its author’s intentions, so that interpretation is as valid as mine. Oh, dear.

I want a better reader. My ideal reader would be quick enough to notice the references to previous marriages. My ideal reader would feel for my poor, violated character, rather than condemn her for not punching harder and screaming louder. My ideal reader would probably also have to announce their elevated status before voicing their criticisms, to avoid being dismissed along with the ignorant masses.

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to argue that my writing skills are at fault if I can’t get my readers where I want them. If I were a better writer, this problem would be smaller. That isn’t the whole story, though. Everyone brings their own reading history, their personal history, experiences, beliefs and prejudices to any text. Every writer makes some assessment of who he is writing for, that’s why The Sun uses shorter words than The Guardian. And yet, how do I write for people unknown?

How am I ever going to know whose reading to trust? Would my ideal reader please stand up?

Written by Not an Odalisque

February 11, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Nothing for you

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I’ve been writing all day and nothing will work. So, more to comfort myself than succour you, I give you Flaubert:

“As though the fullness of the heart does not sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors. After all, no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, of his thoughts or sorrows. Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.”

(Flaubert, Madame Bovary)

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 7, 2010 at 4:59 pm

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New Year’s Resolutions

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Other people’s New Years resolutions are inherently boring. My friends are going to exercise, lose weight, eat better, work shorter hours and achieve more at work. None of them is quite sure how. We all know that thousands of gym memberships will be taken out this January by those my father and his girlfriend snidely call “the minkies”, and that those same minkies will be notably absent from gyms in July. I can’t help thinking that if you’ve munched your way through Christmas, stuffing your bloated body with roast meats, mince pies, cakes and chocolates, your virtuous January resolve is not built upon the sure foundations of health and discipline so much as the sand of guilt and horror at the grotesque wobble of your thighs. If you want a supermodel figure, why did you indulge yourself through December, making the task in January so much more difficult?

That said, I’m doing it, too. My resolutions for this year:

To get back down to a size ten.

Not to buy anything that I could make for myself within a sensible timeframe.

To sleep with interesting, good looking people.

To write.

One of my friends responded “it’s meant to be a resolution, not a life plan” but it is no less achievable, I think, than many lists. If it works, I will be writing about being beautiful, resourceful and having great sex. Don’t you hate me already?

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 3, 2010 at 8:48 pm