STORY OF THE MONTH
By Ben Watkins
The air had cooled, the skin on her fore-arms prickling like a breeze caught on the tips of waist-high grass but, for all that, her eyes remained heavy-lidded; sleep had been difficult over the past two weeks.
The chill of evening sun-burn massaged Lena’s legs and she considered turning back. It was just a moment, but longer than she would have expected. Still she reached the edge of the jetty, the sea sucking at the barnacles on the support posts ten feet below her.
Her house sat idle and would do until past ten, when Will returned home, but that was still two hours away. She rubbed her hands together and blew between her palms, barely noticing arms glide around her like the sea-breeze.
Lena closed her eyes, “Missed you too.”
“You like this beach?”
Their footsteps sank in dry sand and slowed them as they left a dusty wake. They didn’t hold hands, Lena wouldn’t allow it, but she knew that anyone who saw them would have understood.
“Did you have work today?”
“You going to tell me what you do?”
She met her mother the next morning, embracing her like they hadn’t seen each other for months before settling into a café. The frail woman nestled a Styrofoam coffee cup in her hands, leaning over it like she was fighting off a bitter chill.
“Good to get out of the sun,” she said absently. “Far, far too bright.”
Lena nodded silently.
“Did you hear from the people? The teaching people?”
“That’s the place!”
“You have to get...”
“I can’t quit until I have somewhere else to go to.”
Her mother took a few careful sips of her coffee, “Isn’t Will making enough?”
The beach had rapidly become their meeting place and Lena had spent the days between their walks closing her eyes to hear the rolling waves and licking her lips to taste sea-spray. Will had kept hidden in the spare room with his latest project and her Pinot Grigio supply had dried up, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
Friday night was spent sat in a deck-chair in the garden, a blank note-pad in her lap lit by the open living room curtains. A biro hung like a cigarette from her lips as she stared up at the stars and the old oak that grew too close to the house.
Eventually, she heard the padding of saggy trainers and her fiancé stood over her. His shirt was streaked with paint and a dollop of magnolia sat in his hair.
“Are you... you been okay?”
“True.” Will nodded, then carefully; “Still, there’s something else…”
She was half-tempted to tell the truth and, appropriately, what she said was itself half true; “It’s the house.”
Will smiled; “Don’t worry, it’ll get there. How’s the writing?”
“I’ve ground to a halt.”
“Tried taking a walk?”
“Yeah,” Lena replied a little hesitantly, “All the time.”
Will sighed, “You got holiday left?”
“Not saved up but maybe six days left for the year.”
“Then take ‘em,” Will said, closing his eyes. “Take ‘em and go on holiday. Go to Corfu and do some travel writing, use the place to write. Do whatever you need to do.”
“I can’t afford it.”
“I can’t take your money.”
“Never stopped you before.”
A bell sounded over her head as she entered the surf shop. It was packed but empty. Clothes lined the walls and filled the aisles, even hanging from the ceiling, until she couldn’t progress any further without turning sideways.
Then she heard shuffling sounds, stifled by a half-closed door, drift from the store-room. They were followed by a voice; his voice, “I’m coming.”
He threw the door open but it was cushioned by wetsuits before it met the wall and he scrambled behind the counter. Before he saw her he muttered apologies, then he froze.
“Well, howdy there.”
“What do I owe this pleasure?”
Lena shrugged, smiled.
He looked at his watch, “I thought you were busy during the day.”
“I got away early.”
“Superb,” he smiled, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Really?” he mistook disappointment for surprise.
“I got a brochure for the theatre productions in London…”
Lena shook her head.
“Of course we can,” he said. “We can catch a train there and stay the weekend in a hotel. I haven’t got much money but…”
“I don’t have any.”
“I have a boyfriend.”
“A boyfriend?” His eyes dulled without a smile, “How long?”
“Seven years. We’re engaged.”
He chewed the inside of his lip, fists clenched in his pockets, “Then I guess that’s it.”
Lena shook her head, “No.” Good sense told her that he was right; there wasn’t anything else to say.
“Why’d you come here?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“What more do you have to say?”
“I owe you thirty-four ninety-nine,” she said, producing a crumpled receipt as proof.
“The t-shirt was a present.”
“People write that stuff off and... I want to pay you back.”
“I’m not,” Lena said and fished out her purse, “Thirty-four ninety-nine…”
“Is that why you’re here?” he asked, his voice offering echoes of different accents. “To clear all debts?”
“Just take the money.”
A pause held amongst the clutter and his blue eyes.
“I can’t write in that house.” Again Lena sought the right words; “It’s just work. Whenever I picture the house I want to live in… it won’t ever be that place.”
She looked up but he was still quiet, watching her and expecting more.
“The other night, I found some old stories,” Lena sighed. “I tried to redraft them but I just made different mistakes.”
“Then leave him.”
“Then don’t,” he shrugged. “What do you want me to say?”
The corners of Lena’s eyes chilled with the beginnings of tears, “I love you.”
CONGRATULATIONS, BEN, GREAT STORY! NOW TELL US MORE ABOUT YOU!
Whilst I was born in Wales, I’ve spent the last thirteen years in Devon, England. Having worked in numerous different areas I’ve now settled into teaching A-level English. Whilst there, I’ve run recreational creative writing courses for adults and some competitions for local schools.
I’ve just finished writing a fantasy novel called ‘The Book of Fates: The Fallen City’ and I’m going through the process of trying to get a publisher (You can find some extracts on the facebook group with the book’s title at: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/group.php?gid=140102196019799 – it’s an open group so feel free to join and leave constructive feedback). I haven’t got a specific web-site set up but will be wanting to in the coming weeks.
At the moment I’m looking to keep developing separate projects in different areas, whether they’re short stories, plays, screenplays or novels. Anything to keep me creative and productive.
Q. What would you want our readers to know about you?
I hate stilted dialogue – especially exposition.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
I would worry about limiting myself to one genre: after all, what interesting experiences might I miss out on? Most recently I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction (Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson etc) and I’ve been drawn towards writing a novel in that area.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Empathy, patience, accuracy and precision.
The lesson I’ve really learned in the past few years has been to avoid being too over-eager. You need to find your way into a story, work out the relationship between the characters and the plot and how that engages with the theme. This can be found before you start or engaged with through redrafting but it really needs to be there... otherwise the reader just asks, “What’s the point?”
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
I tend to keep notepads pretty much everywhere around the house. I don’t really feel comfortable without them; there’s nothing worse than forgetting a good idea.
Plots and characters tend to come from experiences – spending an evening cleaning out the garage led to ‘The Composition’.
Teaching creative writing courses has really helped me to refine my thoughts on planning.
1) I spider-diagram all the details I can for the character. More than will ever go into the story (i.e parents’ names and jobs and world views, past relationships etc). I find the more decisions I make about the background details the more I get a rationale for the character and how they would behave.
2) I try and work back from where I want to end it – this would be the revelation of the thematic idea of the piece. Then decide on the journey that the character needs to take to get there. If they need to be toughened and ready to face the world then the beginning needs to establish their flaws.
3) Obviously I don’t handcuff myself to the plan as I write a story – it’s a route but I look to find my own way that feels natural.
4) I redraft and redraft, trimming the story down. I find the aim of redrafting to be: a) cutting down unnecessary adjectives/adverbs (every creative writing book will prompt you to do that), b) fighting against any form of repetition that feel clumsy and will lose the faith of the reader, c) picking on myself for any lazy plot twists – have I read it all before? d) looking for opportunities to add specific information (“car” is just a car, but owning a “ten year old brown Volvo” allows the reader to form their own opinion of the character), e) Looking for any opportunity to leave ‘clues’ about the character – I try to trust the reader to engage enough to pick up crumbs of details about the characters. They might be less important bits of information but they allow the story to live outside of what I have written.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Really, I’m most relaxed when writing. I enjoy the process of developing an idea, shading in the detail and redrafting. Trying to find a point where I can empathise with characters no matter. I find the completion of a story to be very satisfying.
Other than that I live in the English countryside. The village I’m in is quite like the movies: 14th century Inns with thatched roofs, open moorland, all ten minutes from the beach. So I do like to enjoy it and make the most of the place.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
My family have always been very supportive and I do enjoy writing for them as an audience. My grandfather’s a voracious reader and I value his opinion greatly.
I have a strange eclectic mix of inspirations – I’ve got no interest in limiting myself to certain genres. I love novels that have an interesting voice, like the ill-educated narrator of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang or the child narrator of Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones, the brutal staccato rhythm of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, the gothic intensity of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or the idiosyncratic tone of Cormac McCarthy’s or Elmore Leonard’s work.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I’ve been working on a playscript and a couple of screenplay ideas but I’ve been mostly focusing on a detective novel called ‘Unidentified Youths’. I’m looking for it to bring the feel of classic literary detective fiction into the modern world.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
The frustration comes from the constraints of time; the obstacles created by the other elements of my life.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
Be patient, accurate and concise. If your work looks less than perfect then your reader will just pick up the new Stephen King or John Grisham instead. The reader doesn’t owe you anything.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
When you complete your story you’re only half way there – you need to re-read purposefully and develop a professional distance with what you have done. That is easier said than done, of course, but it does need to be done. Very often you’ll be really happy with a paragraph, but deep down you’ll know that all that needs to be said is said in the first line.