All mouth – but how’s your wife?

Now he was all mouth. They moved around each other in her midnight kitchen. She filling the kettle, fetching the mugs, milk, sugar and he everywhere she needed to be, blocking the fridge, in front of the china cupboard. He with his mouth and she with her mouth and the angles and distances between the two suddenly so calculable.

‘How is your wife?’ she made herself say.

‘We’re not married.’

‘But you have children, right?’

‘She’s from Sweden,’ he said. ‘She’s very broad-minded.’

I wrote this yesterday under the guidance of one of the best teachers I have ever had, Marti Leimbach. Marti is the author of seven novels, one of which Dying Young, was adapted for screen and another, Daniel Isn’t Talking, drawing on her experience of her own autistic child, made all the bestseller lists. I am a particular fan of Love and Houses. (Luckily she doesn’t subscribe to this blog so my worship will be our little secret.)

Marti brings an energy level turned up to 11 to her seminars. She swears a lot and laughs like a drain given half a chance, especially at herself.

Yesterday we were looking at Creative Revision, the idea being that if you write the first draught for yourself, then the second should pick out the bits you’d want to tell your friends, or better yet, the bits they’d want to hear. She’d set us the task of transforming the statement ‘she thought he was attracted to her and might want to kiss her’ into a living scene which shows, rather than tells what’s happening.

We had 20 minutes to write it and then in the last five minutes, Marti reminded us to make sure we had all the elements for a scene, setting, plot, characters and some kind of change. I’m not sure my piece succeeds entirely, but I’m quite proud of the geometry stuff and also the revision thing really worked for me, delivering the word ‘midnight’ before the word ‘kitchen’ as I realised that I was on the point of reading out the public humiliation of a ‘scene’ almost entirely devoid of setting.

In the brief class discussion of what I’d written, Marti pointed out that the word ‘made’ after the phrase ‘How is your wife?’ rescues that piece of dialogue from being a gigantic, clunking error because it makes the character conscious of the clunkiness to the point where she’s using it to try and stop his attempt to seduce her. I hadn’t understood all that until she said it, but, thinking about it afterwards, that’s exactly how I would tell it to a friend had, ahem, such a scene really happened, a very long time ago:

‘Blah, blah, blah I really wanted to kiss him, you know, but I made myself mention his wife because I really need an affair with a married man like a hole in the head … ‘

The word ‘made’ also appeared in revision, replacing the word ‘heard’ which was my first, weaker choice.

Among other bones Marti threw us were:

  • don’t introduce your character as though s/he is a contestant in a beauty contest – eg ‘Esmerelda, a high-flying banker, who hopes one day to meet and marry Hugo Ponsonby-Tallyho, was walking down the street. ‘
  • try not to have characters listening to little voices in their heads or their souls or essences.
  • don’t let your characters black out or cry much – it’s usually a sign you haven’t set your character up very well and are looking for a short cut to emotion, especially the ‘single, noiseless tear … ‘

There was much, much more, all of it delivered with the timing and vivacity of a stand up comedian. Among other issues we looked at were tone, credibility, authenticity, details and surprise.

Readers, I- I think I love her. I, Cathy Dreyer, a wannabe writer still trying to rock a slightly punk look as a symbol of my inner rebelliosity, weep softly into my coffee, a single noiseless tear tracking down my alabaster cheek, overcome by the rush of feeling as I am …

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17 comments on “All mouth – but how’s your wife?
  1. zencherry says:

    Flippin’ fantastic!
    Wow what a great seminar! (Jealous but happy for you)
    Wonderful advice though I reserve the right to pig out on fantasy books at night and to play with the elves imagining myself in that bronze bikini. 😉

    • zencherry says:

      No, thank YOU for that wonderful excerpt. I could see that scene playing out. The lecherous man full of rationalizations advancing on her. Serious talent there. Serious.

  2. You make me blush, Cathy…. 🙂

  3. What on earth are you talking about? Busted from what? I think you are marvelous. I don’t know what is the matter….blacks out in state of uncontrollable emotion.

  4. Amanda says:

    Loved the post, Cathy! Marti’s seminars sound fabulous. How fantastic to be inspired by someone who so obviously hits the mark with you, and gives out such sound, and applicable advice. Groovy..!!

  5. Very neat-o to read through your process, and your teacher/class sounds totally rad. Now I want to cross the pond and join in, too! Just to be clear, though: character shouldn’t listen to little voices in their heads, but writer is completely free and authorized to do so?

  6. Terrific post, Cathy. You capture a moment in time, both in the seminar, and on the page, and that’s magic 🙂

    • Bugger I’ve messed up the comments. Sorry guys. Justin’s is under Laura’s and vice versa and I can’t work out how to amend it. Laura, now I know Marti does actually subscribe I’m loathe to speak for her, but this is the way I understand what she said. I believe she thinks it’s hard to write a character who listens to a ‘little voice in his/her head’ or who is in any kind of dialogue with his/her soul or essence without lapsing into cliche, or making it obvious that this is a device the story/plot needs rather than the character. That being said, I’m sure Marti would be able to cite numerous examples where the writer carries the whole voice/soul/essence thing off in triumph … Other than that, from all I know about Marti as a teacher, she wouldn’t seek to control any writer’s process, whether or not it involves little voices/essences. I very much appreciate your thoughtful comment. Cathy x

  7. … and instead I went and listened to a guy with very long fingers talk about poetry (while I argued with a friend whether he was gay or not) in a place inhabited solely by women over 60 in camel coats and silk scarves.

    Sorry classmates. Sorry Marti. Bet you were all fab.

  8. Gwendoline Mary says:

    Love the excerpt! I hope I am not dropping you in it by speculating that you based your male character on Schmutter. Poor Amphora.

  9. Julia Indigo says:

    Beautiful. Wish I’d written it!

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