Late summer round-up: some links from the last year

 

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I’m going to be taking a break from this blog while I get cracking on Draft 2 of my Mystery novel. Below are some links to previous posts in case any of these topics interest you. In the meantime, have a great autumn!

Josephine (J Rose)

 

About life in Muscat, Oman:

3 things I never expected (about Oman)

The rhythms of Ramadan

Three tips to survive the Gulf heat

 

On my writing process:

The cat sat on the mat: plot’s magic ingredient

The stories only you can tell

The ink of ideas: is ‘showing up’ enough?

I will write about this one day

 

About teaching:

Love lessons

A relationship built on ‘Junk’

 

Creative writing:

If we were having coffee…

Waltzing still

 

 

 

 

 

3 things I never expected (about Oman)

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1. The PIN thing

A few days ago I was standing near the cashpoint in a shopping mall. There was a bit of a queue. A group of people were crowding around the machine.

‘What’s my PIN?’ Some guy calls out.

No! I’m thinking. I’m ready to block my ears and hum a tune but it’s too late.

‘2167.’ His friend replies at a volume vastly above the hum of the mall.

Later, I’m at the supermarket check out. I hand the cashier my card.

‘PIN number,’ she asks. Oh no not again. I think. I hold out my hand to take the mini card machine thing. Except she’s not handing it to me.  There’s nowhere for me to type. I look at her.

‘Can you tell me your PIN?’ In England she’d have practically been arrested. She’s looking at me like I’ve refused to pay.

Trained from early on in the UK to not even whisper my PIN, I stand my ground.  ‘No I cannot.’

British banks would have you believe it’s akin to handing thieves the keys to your car; 8 percent of data breaches in the world occur in the United Kingdom (we rank second after the U.S.A).

But here in Oman, sharing your PIN with a stranger is not abnormal. Maybe it’s the low rate of theft in this country, and the fact that everyone seems to know everyone. (Although, I have to admit that when it comes to PIN sharing, I have no plans to go native!)

2. ‘Wasta’ (Friends helping friends)

My week continues in a similar way. On my way out of a local clinic,  I get into my car, ready to go home. The car won’t start. I return to reception and ask them for a taxi. The woman at the desk calls out a name:

‘Sami!’ across the waiting room, ‘Sami!’

Sami is standing outside by the glass doors. They keep sliding open, then closing.He finally hears.

‘Yes.’

‘Can you call this patient a taxi?’

‘What?’

‘A taxi, please call a taxi.’

‘What?

By now, the woman has it down to a single word, on repeat, ‘taxi’ an international word, or so I thought. She’s saying it again and again. I’m getting dizzy. Sami is leaning over the receptionist’s desk with his head to one side as if the word is very complicated.

The woman is trying mime.

‘Taxi,’ she says again. ‘Ta-xi. Car. Drive. Patient.’ She points at me.

Patient, I am trying to be.

‘Ah,’ Sami finally understands. ‘You mean Texi. Why you didn’t say?’ and he goes off to find one.

Five minutes later, Sami gestures from the sliding doors. I walk into the sun and he points to another man. The Texi man and I head towards his car. But I can’t see the white bodywork of any taxi cabs. He turns to face me, ‘I am new in town. I don’t know the roads so you have to guide me.’

I have to guide the Texi.

I look at the way he is dressed like an office clerk, at the car park with no white cars. ‘Are you a taxi driver?’ I ask.

‘No. Not really,’ he admits, ‘But I have a car and I can drive you. No pay.’ He says it warmly, like it is the most normal thing for a lone woman to get into a stranger’s car outside a clinic by a freeway. Suddenly I am questioning my own understanding of this city. Perhaps this is Muscat’s answer to Uber where anyone can drive you. But for free. In their Texis.

Or perhaps he is a psychopath and I am his first opportunity.

I look at his face. He is smiling warmly, ready to drive me in his car. I  don’t think he is a psychopath, he just wants to do his friend a favour. Oman is like that. Full of people doing each other favours. Because the country feels safe, formality is bypassed.

I go to the highway and flag down a real taxi.

3. Benglish

Muscat is home to Omanis, Filipinos, Indians, Brits, North Americans; the language in common seems to be English – or on documents, websites and shop signs, ‘Bad English’ – or Benglish’- as my friend has renamed it. When I first arrived, the English teacher in me used to shake my head at the shop signs, but now I enjoy them. Here is one of my favourites. This is a butcher’s shop:

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The cat sat on the mat: plot’s magic ingredient

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Last week I read a brilliant book about making-up stories.  In it, Roz Morris explained how writers weave plot. There’s one thing, she says, that novelists often fail to factor in. It’s not death or drama, or even dialogue. The vital ingredient, she says, is conflict.

Reading  her guide to plot was like being handed an  X- ray vision potion. Unable to read a book or watch a drama the same way again, I found myself the other evening in front of Holby City. Conflict was all I saw:

A man walks into the hospital pharmacy. He leans over the counter and demands the pharmacist hand him a drug. He looks unwell, waving a needle, says he needs it. Now.

The pharmacist looks for the drug. She wavers, says she can’t give it to him, the computer won’t let her in. The man moves closer to the pharmacist, holding the needle like a weapon.

The pharmacist is now having an asthma attack. A doctor walks in, tries to talk the man round, the pharmacist falls as the needle-wielding man stands over her, she hits her head, blacks out

and so on…

The scene had me gripped. Some say we are wired for it, the human brain poised to solve problems, buzzing with  ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Conflict dramatized can be delicious in its intensity, reflecting back the brain’s need to resolve, cathartic in its climax.

In my own first draft I had tried hard to make the scenes ‘realistic’. But a novel is pure artifice. Tricks hidden beneath the story keep us engaged. One of them is surely conflict, pushing the characters to the limit, creating an electrical charge to power the whole piece.

Science fiction author Brandon Sanderson  advises new novelists in his filmed lectures, to begin with character,  setting or plot and to let the conflict come from any, or all, of those places. That’s where story begins, he says. His advice makes the blank page far more inviting; the doorways into plot are many.

As I research my second draft, watching reels of film from the 30s: the heart of Spain’s cities and valleys hardened to hand grenades, neighbour turned against neighbour, I am reminded that Conflict is a big word – war and fights most often come to mind.

But pick up any novel and conflicts abound. Everyday, normal decisions which might somehow spiral into plot or subplot. I think it was John le Carré  who said:

“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. 

 

but…

“The cat sat on the dog’s mat”  is a story.

 

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear of your experiences plotting (conflict-driven or otherwise!)

 

The stories only you can tell

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Writing a novel is hard. I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky. It’s hard because it asks for everything you’ve got. Like trying to catch the world with a net: a lovely idea but daunting to know where to begin.

18 months ago I began writing a mystery set in Madrid. In January, I thought I’d done it. I closed the program, wrote a synopsis and sent it all to a publisher who had shown interest in my work at a Writer’s Festival .

I waited a month. No answer. I scanned through blogs which said ‘don’t nag editors and agents’ so I didn’t. Unwilling to take the rejection personally,  I thought, ‘Oh well, editors are  busy’, or ‘perhaps my novel isn’t up to much’. I worked elsewhere, convinced myself that once done, my book shouldn’t be revisited, after all I’d given it my best shot.

And then something strange started happening. Driving, teaching, chatting with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story.  Not the plot (that’s a different problem!) but the thing I wanted to say, what’s mine.

I remembered the author Neil Gaiman said:

‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.’

And then I twigged. As much as I didn’t relish revisiting the novel I had put months of work into, I had no choice but to return to it if I wanted to air its story.

‘I’ve always felt you unearth story, like you’re on an archaeological dig’ wrote Stephen King in his seminal work, ‘On Writing’.

My story kept glinting from the earth, would not leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it.

So one morning last week, into my kindle,  like a kind of miracle arrived ‘Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel’ by Roz Morris, a guide so comprehensive that by the end of it I knew technically what I needed to do. I had a plan, a decision to go back to ground level, unearth the fossil of my tale and make it matter to a reader.

Writing a novel is hard, I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky, but the alternative is keeping something inside that only I am in a position to share. My story.

What would you do?

 

Fly like Eddie

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You know it well, yearn for it, are driven by it. You even smile when you hear its name. You’ve chased it, occasionally found yourself in its flow.

Perhaps you’re a writer stuck at a strange juncture, or an artist on the border of showing your work. Whatever your passion, this thing you’re working on illuminates your world, matters more than almost any other thing.

When you got stuck and it seemed to leave your grasp, what did you do? Wait for its return, give up, walk away?

Eddie ‘The Eagle’, English ski jumper, was driven by a persistent voice when he decided to put himself forward for the Winter Olympics in Calgary.

‘Go,’ said the voice, ‘It’s what you must do’.

Eddie was a novice, a non-sporty child who had only recently gained full use of his legs. But the voice did not let up and neither did Eddie. He trained alone, travelled far, supported himself with other work, ignored the advice of detractors. Eddie kept his eye on the ball.

The film about his life makes much of Eddie’s outsider status. Socially, he drinks milk. Eddie has none of the fancy gear, nor the cultural confidence of his nordic counterparts. His ski-jumping coach has a questionable attitude.

But what Eddie possesses is tons of grit. He persists because he is absolutely in love with the sport. We see it in his eyes as he watches his rivals’ skill on the television. We sense it in the resolve behind his decision to leave England to train.

To have passion for something is wonderful, but to pursue that passion undaunted by setbacks can bring great beauty into the world.

The film ends with these words:

‘May the real work begin.’

The Real work. Passion’s tireless companion. May all people working creatively find a way to marry the two. The passion and the grit.  May we learn to fly like Eddie.

 

This post was in part inspired by the work of my blogger-friend David J. Rogers who writes for artists and writers about the psychological skills required for success.

 

The rhythms of Ramadan

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A city which is normally calm has turned drowsy.

At 2.15 in the afternoon, trails of vehicles drive their inhabitants towards the siesta. But even the rhythms of sleep, during the holy month of Ramadan are different, grabbed between prayers and the breaking of the fast.

In this city, Ramadan is a time for family. Evening Iftars do take place in the swankier hotels and club houses, but as the sun sets, most of the city’s dwellers head home.

Five years ago I spent Ramadan in another Gulf state and was overwhelmed by the sudden silence of the place. Here it is the rejigging of the days which surprises, recalibrates the system. The bank and gym close three hours early, cafes are out of action until nightfall. Suddenly this seaside town is populated by owls, eyeing menus into the early hours.

Sounds of the qu’ran recited float from car radios. The call to prayer has a different quality and smiles, common currency in this part of the world are even quicker returned, as if to keep on lifting that single chain which holds us all together, regardless of any other thing, Muscat’s residents joined by centuries old tradition.

 

 

Love lessons

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A friend once told me that her job meant loving every person who entered her practice room. Her clients brought wounds and flowers, she loved them all. It made sense this four-letter word should be the mainstay of therapy, its natural pacemaker.

But a few weeks ago I was surprised to find that I had fallen in love with a school. A school? You may ask. Well not the building exactly. But the work, the place, its people, their process.

The building stands where the city’s edge meets jagged rock. Children from over 62 countries move from lesson to lesson without bells. The classes aren’t large.

I first taught there when I arrived in Muscat a couple of years ago . I remember overhearing two children discussing something. One of them asking the other:

‘What’s bullying?’

That. Right there. The reason I love this school. Because I had never heard such a thing from a child in an educational establishment. From a fifteen year old.

Or the girl who came to find me during break time, to tell me they had sold out of the origami boxes I had liked and she was very sorry. Seven years old, from the elementary section.

And the student from Grade 9 who had defied me so beautifully. They were writing science fiction short stories.

‘Avoid,’ I  had said ‘using the second person. It’s powerful but hard to do. I wouldn’t try it. Not yet.’

I should have seen her expression. Noticed her sit up when I suggested what ‘you’ might add to her words. The next day I received her story, it was directed entirely at its reader and its raw power brought tears to my eyes.

Another English teacher took me under her wing. Seeing I would need to learn a whole curriculum in a few days, she made herself available.

‘Just drop by,’

And I did, asking questions week after week until I got the gist of this half-taught unit another teacher had left for someone else to pick up.

Love sometimes is presence, for another.

The walls of the school have posters about the I.B. If you’ve every taught it or studied it you’ll know it’s rigorous and open, that students often emerge from the diploma caring consciously about the planet and its people. The posters use words like: integrity, diversity, willingness to take risks, caring, inquiry.

And it is these abstract nouns, I think, which grabbed my heart, in the actions of its purveyors, the children here, the staff.

 

How does love feature in your work? Please feel free to share your thoughts below….