Tag Archives: Writing

Wandering in the Island of Rabbits

I was sat in the shade of these giant, leafless hardwoods with bone-white, chipped and peeling facades when I opened my journal for the first time under Hungary’s sun. I hadn’t expected Budapest in April would be so darn hot. My leather jacket I’d bought years ago in the Wisconsin Dells- such an integral part of my identity- ended up doing nothing all week except take up needless space in my unforgiving RyanAir carry-on baggage allotment. It was nice that the weather was so sunny for my visit, but I did feel a little disarmed without my favorite jacket. I take this thing everywhere. However the rest of my look was still intact- I had the cowboy belt I got in Texas around my waist and my trusty Jordans on my feet. I drew strength from these things. The kind of strength I figured I would need to travel alone, but which I later realized, wasn’t even necessary. I was surprised how comfortable I was in my own company. During a video call with my roommate Aaron back at the boat, he told me “I don’t want you slipping into the meek persona. No apologizing, no bumbling, no worrying what people will think about you. I want zero fucks given. You wear a goddam cowboy belt and a pair of Jordans for Chrissake. How many people there are gonna be wearing that? Think about what makes you unique and let it empower you. If you’re gonna wear those fancy sneakers, you need to live up to the spirit of Michael Jordan. Can you do that?”

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It was time to do what I’d come here to do and swallow as much of the city as I could, for all its colors and ambient vibrations to be stored somewhere deep inside of me. So I brought this fresh journal- whose scrambled notes I am now translating into a coherent blog post. The journal seemed just right. It was a gift from my mom. She’s quite the traveler herself, and picked this journal up at a famous bookstore in Porto, Portugal called Livraria Lello, that was supposedly a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. The paper isn’t lined, so I was free to splurge my pen directionless over that inviting, unspoiled white. I included pictures and diagrams where necessary, and within minutes the thing was covered in a hasty series of mind-maps.

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The breeze that touched my skin under that beautifully barren canopy, I realized, was the same that had touched the cheeks of those Dominican nuns almost nine centuries ago. It was a religious air that carried through the trees, and landed now on the cheeks of little schoolchildren. The island had always been a place of tranquility and contemplation for the Hungarians. I decided it would be the best choice for me to start my week in Budapest with- especially since Margitsziget is so close to my hotel. I’d walk around, collect all that precious ambience I craved, before taking a dip in the island’s spa- the Palatinus Strand. The meditative culture of the island goes back to its settlement by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century. After the Mongols ravaged Hungary and returned east for the funeral of the Great Khan, King Béla IV gave his daughter Margaret to the Dominican convent on the island, believing that a child dedicated to religion would be reason enough for God not to ask the Mongols to come back. They didn’t, and the island was renamed to Margitsziget (Margaret Island). Before that, it had been known as Nyulak Szigete, which translates as Rabbit Island, or Island of Rabbits.

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The first thing I noticed was that there were dog walkers everywhere. Budapest loves dogs! I saw two sausage dogs excitedly investigating a big, fluffy gentle giant that looked like a husky mix. Alongside the dog walkers were runners and cyclists. There were no cars. I could hear the birds singing, a sound that escapes the ears when in the rest of the city. I felt soothed by the sound of the bike rental woman as she swept the empty road with a wide broom. Old folks sat on benches while groups of teenagers rented bikes and scooters. The far off din of playing children. Couples strolled through the trees hand in hand. Some of the trees had bright colors, others were barren. The grass was dotted with dandelions. There were a few homeless people sleeping on the grass. On a nearby tree trunk two lovers had carved “Pau + Heni” inside a crude heart.

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I walked up the east side of the island and found a miniature zoo. I let the donkey kiss my palm and moved on, going north to the ruins of a Franciscan church and the old Dominican convent where Saint Margaret had lived her entire life. I imagined her admiring the birds as she collected water from a well, looking across the Danube and gazing in wonder at the outside world. I bought a little dish of ice cream and set off for the Japanese garden at the north end of the island. I sat on a bench and made notes in the journal again as a young Hungarian couple had their engagement photos taken by the pond. After finishing my ice cream I went up a narrow path, only to find another young couple deep in love. They stood facing each other and holding both of their hands between them, talking very intimately. I wondered if the guy was about to propose so I doubled back and took an alternate route. I don’t think he did though- I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Magyar people are naturally very passionate.

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I left and headed south down the western side of the island. I looked at a group of English girls peddling one of those rental buggies, giggling and screaming. For a moment I thought that I was limiting myself by traveling alone, and couldn’t help but imagine doing something like that with my friends. I messaged these thoughts to Elizabeth, and she texted back “I really think there is something special about seeing a place by yourself. Going with others limits your independence and closes your eyes to certain things. I honestly think this trip is going to be something you remember for the rest of your life as the best decision you ever made.”

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She was right. My trip wasn’t lesser; it was just different. My experience of the city would have been completely different if I had gone with friends or family. Now I can go back and discover Budapest all over again through the lens of a roommate, a friend, a brother, or a girlfriend. And I would definitely take my future travel companion to Margitsziget so that I might observe their fresh reactions to the same spiritual breeze that so affected me.

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The Cafés of Budapest

Budapest has a thriving café culture. A big reason why I decided to stay for a full week and not a weekend is that I wanted to take the time to sit in these cafés and just soak in the ambience. I wanted to drink coffee and do a little people-watching. I wanted Budapest to be to me what Paris was to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I needed to see this city while I was young and have it leave a strong impression on me. I wanted it to become my city, and I figured the best way to find that sense of ownership and belonging was in cafés.

It was during my time in Houston last year that I discovered coffee, and now I can scarcely imagine my life without it. The 200,000 words that make up this blog didn’t come out of nowhere. They needed fuel, and that fuel was caffeine. And I got the strangest feeling ordering my first Hungarian coffee- I was struck by how naturally and confidently I asked for it. Less than a year ago I was introduced to the sweet almond coffees my roommate Anne-Marie made for me, and for a few months I very carefully tried to replicate the exact cups she had crafted. Now I’m fine drinking the blackest, bitterest coffees out there, and it doesn’t bother me where they come from. I was like “Look at me, ordering coffee like a true connoisseur!”

 


CAFÉ GUSTO

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Address: Budapest, Frankel Leó út 12, 1023

What I Got: Bécsi virsli (Vienese Sausages), Americano, Ribizili (Cake)

My Visit: I found this place on Google Maps and saw that the reviews were pretty darn good, with particular praise singled out for the lunch menu. I was after some breakfast however, and needed someplace with which to fill my wailing gut, having not eaten much at the airport the night before. Café Gusto waited for me on a quiet street lined either side with parked cars. There were few pedestrians, and aside from the little Café Gusto, the place looked pretty residential. I was only a block away from the Danube, but the street had the charming quality one finds in cities like Toulouse when they stray away from the buzz of tourism, and realize they have crossed over into a territory that is so thoroughly its own. It’s like walking into a shotgun house out of the pouring rain and coming out on the back porch to find yourself bathed in sunshine.

I entered the café and it was near 10am. The place was quiet, and there was only one other patron- a young woman drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the terrace with her bike propped against the wall. I sat on the inside to get a feel for the place and ordered some Vienese Sausages. The sausages were excellent, and went perfectly with the mustard. I wasn’t sated however, and ordered a slice of cake after I was done. The interior design was super-cozy, the tables adorned with flower pots, the walls with classy paintings of Budapest and idyllic Hungarian country scenes. Pop music played, not too loud. I admired the little lamps that hung from the walls.

It was here that I learned that you shouldn’t be put off if a Hungarian first comes across as reserved. The waitress was quiet and professional, but I persisted in offering her smiles and acting deliberately goofy. When she took my plate away I said “csodálatos!” which means “wonderful”. She paused and I said “wait!” and typed it into my phone on Google Translate. Then I showed her my phone and repeated the word and she laughed, thanking me. When the cake arrived I asked her for the Magyar spelling. Ribizili. She told me how to spell it and I wrote it down. Obviously, I could have looked it up online, but I was committed to talking to as many locals as possible and bringing them out of their shell if they were on the shy side. According to Dale Carnegie a good way to get someone to like you is to ask them for a favor. I wondered if most of the natives’ exposure to the English was the boisterous lads on Stag-Do’s that paraded down the streets in spring chicken onesies and puked their lángos out into the gutters come morn.

 


Café Smuz

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Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 18, 1055

What I Got: A Magyar kedvenc: szalámis-körözöttes svendvics (Hungarian’s favorite: salami with creamy paprika flavored cottage cheese), vizet (water), blue-velvet latte

My Visit: This place is on the Pest side of quirky, and was easily the most hipster lunchroom I went to during my stay. What makes this café so awesome is that it doubles as a florist. I sat inside and the air was thick with the aroma of fresh blooms. I came here for lunch after leaving Margitsziget and ordered what the menu described as the “Hungarian’s favorite”. I like salami and cold cuts, so it went down very well. I’m not really a latte person since I don’t like my coffees to feel filling. I am most definitely a drinker of black coffee. However, I decided to try the blue velvet they had on offer here, because it seemed in keeping with the colorful tone of the place.

Smuz had a different atmosphere to Gusto. My breakfast was had at a little hole-in-the-wall, a hidden gem, the kind of place where the staff are on first name terms with the regulars. Smuz, however, was located right next to the awesome Parliament building and had a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe to it. The place was full of natural light, which made sense given it was also a flower shop. It lacked that cozy feeling, but the staff were very friendly. They were young, spoke good English, and they were very helpful when I asked them for the names of things for me to write down. As if the place couldn’t get any more quirky, there was an old school nacho machine on the counter like you’d get at an old American movie theater. The music was all 1960s counterculture; John Lennon and Don McClean. I found this amusing, because the last song we listened to on my last shift at the warehouse was “American Pie”.

 


Callas Café & Restaurant

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Address: 1061 BUDAPEST, ANDRÁSSY ÚT 20

What I Got: Sült ananász quinoa-val (Baked pineapple w/ quinoa), Coke, slice of cake

My Visit: The Callas Café sits right outside the Hungarian State Opera House. I came here for lunch before I took my tour. It was a little late, so there were few other patrons. The restaurant is very opulent- everything is clean and gold and shiny. The staff were very professional, and I don’t know whether this was an intentional hiring policy or not, but all the waiters had shaved heads. It made me wonder whether this was considered proper in Hungary, that the best waiters ought to be bald. I sat right next to the cakes in the window and admired them as I wrote in my journal. Hungary is a damn good place to go if you enjoy cakes alongside your coffee. Most places I went to offered a slew of cakes as the primary dessert options, and I came to learn that the cake is a big part of Hungarian cuisine.

I wanted a light lunch because I didn’t want to feel like one of those pythons that had just swallowed an entire Caiman when I went for my massage in a couple hours. I also realized that this café was a little fancy and I didn’t want to spend too much money. I looked at the other patrons and imagined that they were quite well-off. I imagined that the British guy opposite me held a managerial position of some kind, that he was divorced, and that the woman with him was his secretary or something. I ended up getting the baked pineapple with quinoa. Fucking great choice. I wasn’t sure what a baked pineapple would taste like, but it turns out the answer is delicious.

 


Café Gerbeaud

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Address: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7-8, 1051

What I Got: 2 slices of pistachio & raspberry cake (yolo), black coffee

My Visit: Gerbeaud is regarded as one of the grandest coffeehouses of Europe, and the fanciest in all of Budapest. I had this place written down on my bucket list at the front of my journal. This, it seemed, was the heart of Budapest’s vibrant café culture. I took the streetcar to Vörösmarty tér in the morning and found it a real hub of activity. The square was filled with stalls selling traditional products, handmade crafts, and all kinds of street-food. Music played and people danced on the balls of their feet, bouncing from side to side with hands on hips. I tried Gerbeaud but the door was locked. A sign said something about not being open until lunch. I was surprised and disappointed. It messed with my plan for that day. I decided to damn it all to sod, and eat street-food for breakfast. I found a stall and got in line. Just as I was about to give my order, I saw that there was another door at the other end of the building, and this one opened. I left the line and went inside, and it turns out the bistro and the coffeehouse are separate entities.

This place was next level fancy. There’s a distinct Gründerzeit flair to the architecture, and the whole place just seems to shine. It’s elegant beyond compare, with its grandiose chandeliers and polished woods, and wonderful staff. I felt like I was really being looked after here. I decided on cake for breakfast, and the slice was so moist and so delicious, I promptly ordered another one when the waiter came to take my plate.

Near me there was a family of four, I think from Russia or somewhere like that. The husband was ginger with a very tidy goatee, and the wife was blond and somewhat Claire Underwood in her appearance. The parents spoke in Russian to each other but the little children- a boy and a girl- spoke perfect American English. The kids were adorable. The little girl had French Braids and was clad in a white, floral dress. I thought it was very sweet that despite her young age, she had the affectations of an adult, with exceptional posture and manners, often trying to calm her baby sibling. I couldn’t help but smile when she got up and stood next to where her mother sat, and caressed her mother’s arm, as though soothing her. Everyone around me seemed to be smiling at this perfect little family as well. The tiny girl seemed wise beyond her years, and said “Papa, you can’t ever judge a thing by its cover.”

 


New York Café

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Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073

What I Got: The Writer’s Dish (cold cuts & cheese platter), Wiener schnitzel w/ mustard potato salad, New York lemonade, raspberry ice cream sundae

My Visit: I had my eyes on the New York Café above all others, since it developed a reputation in the early 20th century as the preferred hangout of impoverished writers. This place seemed to sum up my vision of what I wanted from my trip to Hungary. A place to eat, drink, and get my creative gears turning. I can’t help but think this establishment must have changed over the years though, because it was easily the most expensive place I went. I walked all the way from the Szechenyi Baths, through Varosliget in the rain, on my bloodied toes to get here. When you enter you have to wait to be seated, and then they lower the rope. It felt nice to be allowed entry. My hair was fluffy from the bath and I was dressed in jeans, my Texas belt, my Jordans, and my UHCL Hawks t-shirt. I was sat in a quiet corner beneath an enormous chandelier.

I opted for the Writer’s Dish for my appetizer since I came here with an interest in the café’s literary history. I actually enjoyed this more than my main meal (the wiener schnitzel), since I do like Italian cold meats and cheese. Opposite me was a table of vacationing Americans. Just like I did in Gerbeaud, I tried to listen to their conversation and imagine their lives. The women talked like the stereotypical suburban wasps, no doubt with tennis instructors and several cars. They tied the sleeves of their sweaters around their necks or waists when it got hot. The men were equally trim and clean-looking, and I overheard them talking about business. They all clinked glasses and one said “from the bottom of my heart, I love everyone at this table”. They discussed their visits to Barcelona and Copenhagen and offered each other travel tips on what to see and where to stay. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of their world. It’s been several years since I used my iPod and I don’t see myself ever needing one again. People are so interesting, and you can learn so much just by getting out of the house.

My Study Abroad Overview: Nothing Gold Can Stay

My last exam at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire was held at noon on Friday, December 21st 2012, the day before I flew back to London. Even though I lived in the dorm room adjacent to 459 where Aaron and Akbar stayed, I spent my last night on campus sleeping on their futon. I grabbed my duvet (comforter) and pillows, and had an old school sleepover.

In that last week I was a total mess. I completely prioritized my social endeavors, and academics were a mere afterthought. My semester felt like everything I had ever known, as though I couldn’t remember anything in my life before it. America was no longer a novelty- the initial incredulous shock of “Holy shit, I’m actually in America. This place is real. There are people that live here,” that I felt upon my arrival in August had vanished. Now America felt like home, as though I had always been here. The mythic image of movies and TV was now just that- a myth- and it had become something real, tangible, normal. I was distraught at the idea of leaving my friends behind and the life I had built in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They say time flies when you’re having fun and all that, but that one semester seemed longer than any other period of my life. It contained within it more memories than all my semesters at Winchester put together. I cursed the way time just moves forward, and I wanted more than anything for time to stand still. With every fiber of my being I was a UW-Eau Claire Blugold, and this is exactly what the student exchange coordinators warned us about back home. Ultimately, this wasn’t a transfer. Technically, I wasn’t a Blugold at all. I was still a University of Winchester student, and there was no evidence or documentation to prove otherwise. In fact, there’s no record I was ever at UW-Eau Claire in the first place. Within weeks my student e-mail account was expunged and the whole experience felt like a blurry detour to the Twilight Zone.

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Studying abroad for a semester in the USA in many ways encapsulates what America is. It’s a dream. And dreams end. Every one of us that departed Winchester for the USA was warned that we would fall in love and forget where we came from. We did. The pain we felt at leaving was guaranteed from the outset. It was the price to pay for simulating American life for a few months.

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During one of my Creative Writing Workshop classes, I wrote a story about an American college boy that, in a chance encounter, has sex with the girl of his dreams. I called her Emmaline Smits, the “Lady of the Bay” from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. The guy idealizes the girl, but ultimately realizes he meant nothing to her and that the dream that came true didn’t do anything for him long-term except hurt him. My professor said that she thought I should change the main character to a British exchange student, because she thought that he was me. The Lady of the Bay, she said, represented the American Dream, and that my story was about how you can fall in love with America and everything it offers, but then it can take it away from you, and leave you in the dark. I never thought about all that as I was writing it, so it must have been subconscious. It’s interesting that I wrote that story, because it kind of foreshadowed the pain I went through when my semester ended. Emmaline was my semester abroad.

Anyway, I woke up on the morning of Friday the 21st and started to study for my exam. It was the first time I even looked up what the exam was about, if you can believe it. I had to read a poem by Robert Frost. Here it is:

 

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

 

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing perfect can last. Frost juxtaposes images of heaven with the intrinsically flawed nature of the human world. Heaven and Eden are a dream. God is love- perfect love. And to me the invention of God and heaven by humanity have always represented our desire for perfection in a world that hurts us. Religion is born out of the realization of our flaws; it is a reaction to the glaring imperfections of our world, which seem overwhelming when they hurt us. Now, I don’t want to get hyperbolic about the emotions I felt as the curtains of my semester abroad were drawn. Frost’s poem is way more complex than the issues I want to discuss in this post. But I can’t help but think of the immortal line at the end of this famous poem when I think of my student exchange coming to an end.

America is a dreamy place. And the reality is that it can hurt you, whether you live there as a citizen or at the grace of a student visa. It represents the best we have to offer and the absolute worst. It’s easy to fall in love with its sheer variety of ice cream flavors, its powerful showerheads, and its excellent urban planning. But within this romantic framework there is so much potential for heartache. America will always be a place that is of endless fascination to me; a land where the real world and the dream world live side by side.

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Before I left for my exam, Aaron and Akbar presented me with the best gift I could have ever asked for- a t-shirt signed by everyone I met. Aaron even added a signature that read “L.O.B” meaning Lady of the Bay. I remember being paranoid about how the goodbye would go. It had to go absolutely perfectly, I thought to myself, or I’d be anxious for days. I had to go to the bog to answer nature’s call, and as I sat on the cool porcelain of the toilet seat I texted Aaron “Don’t leave without saying goodbye” and he texted back “I won’t” which I instantly realized was the last thing Elvis Presley said before he tragically passed away in 1977. It was the last message Aaron texted me on my TracPhone, and I vowed to never delete it. I liked the idea of looking at it years from then.

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I rushed down several flights of stairs and found him and Akbar loading his things into the trunk of a car. Beside them were Aaron’s mom Sylvia and his sister Elizabeth. I was very nervous and unsure what to say. Then Akbar said “Here he is. Almost missed Aaron because you were taking a 30-minute dump.”

At that moment I blushed as red as I have ever blushed and froze. Sylvia said “Thanks, I really wanted to know that,” and I worried that everything was ruined. I ended up hanging around with them for longer than I should have- since my exam was in ten minutes and on the other side of campus- trying to think of a way to say something cool or funny. No such thing happened. I wished Aaron a Merry Christmas, told Akbar I’d see him later, I tried to make it to Hibbard as fast as I could without slipping on the ice.

I entered the classroom just as the exam started, and quietly took my blue book and started writing. When the exam was finished, I shook the professor’s hand and wished him a Merry Christmas, feeling very emotional all of a sudden. I left the building and found that the campus outside was almost deserted. Most folks had left. I took the long way back to Towers North, stopping by the bookstore to sell my textbooks, and pausing to admire Little Niagara and the silent, imposing buildings around me. Now that Aaron was gone, the semester was over. I felt like a tourist again, an outsider, walking among buildings and trees that did not belong to me, but which just an hour earlier passed in the periphery of my eye without a second thought. There was something so cold about the buildings and trees that would endure long after I’d gone.

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The snow had stopped falling, and the winter sun bathed the campus in white light. That was the moment my semester ended. In spirit, I was already back in the UK. I was British again. Everything between that moment and the plane landing in Heathrow was just my body going through the various motions of transporting myself back to Nailsea. Throughout the whole trip home- a long sequence of cars, shuttle-buses and planes- I was very impatient. I just wanted all this dead time to be over, since I was already switched off from America. My mind and my heart were blank. Whatever had connected me to the America around me was gone; whatever interface that allowed me to feel and consider the trees, the animals, the road signs, the slang, the body language, the sunsets- the vast details that constituted the life force of the America I had fallen in love with- was no longer working. It was like seeing it all in pictures and movies, even though I was still there. It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever had. And it’s the one I want to end this study abroad series on. Thank you to everyone who has read these little essays since the beginning. Hopefully it was interesting to you. I will still write about the USA, but the story of my study abroad is over. Come next week, I will have started a new project, so stay tuned…

Notes on Writing a Novel #2

I’ve never been 100% confident in my ability to write dialogue. It’s something I’ve been paying close attention to in my novel. I have to get it right, because dialogue is the roofbeam that keeps this madhouse from collapsing in on itself. The dialogue is what brings the characters of your story to life, and any time there is a disconnect between the reader and your characters, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s an aspect of writing fiction that is easy to learn but so hard to master. It looks simple, but subtlety is required in order to achieve excellence. The writer of great dialogue is perceptive, not just of the conversational habits of real people, but of the craft of storytelling. They have to bridge the gap between the real world and the one on the page, all the while being able to keep each one at an arm’s length away from the manuscript.

What I mean by that is that, to me, the secret to writing effectual dialogue is maintaining balance. You don’t want it to be so realistic that it becomes hard to follow, but you also don’t want it to become so contrived that it feels like you’ve lifted the lines from a bad soap opera. Good dialogue is believable, but also sharp and friendly to readers of the medium of fiction. There’s a reason that news articles and the like will often re-word what an interviewee says, making the subject’s sentences neater and more accessible. They remove repeated words and fill in missing ones to achieve that all-important quality of dialogue: flow. The way we talk in everyday life is often jumbled and rough, and in the medium of drama we are looking to grip people’s attention with speech that is crisp and polished. My favorite example of this kind of excellence is the Ernest Hemingway short story The Killers. Here’s a short extract:

 

“What’s he going to do?”

“Nothing.”

“They’ll kill him.”

“I guess they will.”

“He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.”

“I guess so,” said Nick.

“It’s a hell of a thing.”

“It’s an awful thing,” Nick said.

 

As you can see, the dialogue is snappy- each sentence has a way of flowing into the next. There is a rhythm that exists throughout the scene. And, Hemingway has achieved the kind of balance I mentioned earlier. He has captured the essence of how real people speak, rather than replicating it verbatim.

When I took classes in screenwriting at university, my professor reiterated that dialogue should be used only when absolutely necessary. If you can show what’s happening without speech, then do that. Our professors would go through our screenplays and pick out certain lines of dialogue.

“Is this really necessary?” they would say. We were shown the beginning of There Will Be Blood as an example of the power of omitting speech. It would have only diminished the effect of the scene if they had Daniel Day-Lewis exclaim “I fell down a pit mine and done me leg in!”

The same lessons hold true for writing fiction. A sense of balance is yet again required. You don’t want too much of your narrative exposition to come in the form of spoken dialogue, because then the characters will seem less believable. They will seem like mouthpieces for the events of the story, which will then indicate to the reader that you don’t think much of their intelligence. Nothing breaks immersion more than when information is forced into a character’s dialogue. For example, if a character is being cornered by a creepy janitor carrying an Arkansas Toothpick, said victim isn’t going to waste their breath going “Ah, so it was you all along. You must have seen Little Curtis walking home from school and snatched him while no one was looking!” when really they would be using their lungs to call for help.

But of course, you don’t want to have too little dialogue that your story becomes vague and boring. What dialogue you include should not be inconsequential. It should be striking and colorful. So once again, a sense of balance is needed- don’t be too vague, and don’t include too much. And if you get it just right, you’ll hopefully have written a scene that readers find compelling.

Notes on Writing a Novel #1

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel. I’m about halfway through the first draft and I figured it might be a neat idea to blog about the writing process as it is happening. It’s the first long-term project I’ve worked on in years. When I first started writing stories as a kid, I wrote extended pieces of fiction. I’m not sure if I would call them novels though. I wrote them longhand in notebooks. I had heard at school that writers like to use notebooks with spiral binding, because they can rip the pages out if they want. So I got one, and started writing my very first story. It was a space adventure, in which me and my best friend Artie from school were the main characters. We were abandoned as kids on Saturn, and sort of grew up as feral children, before being adopted by aliens and given the gift of speech and intelligence. The two of us then set out on a voyage across the solar system, eventually reconnecting with our families, who had grown up on a human colony on Europa. The story featured pretty much all my friends from school at the time. Several wormholes, magical artifacts, and one cosmic baryonyx later, we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict with a witch on a planet where the trees are so tall you can’t see the bottom, and the natives live in the clouds in hollowed-out apartments connected by bridges. This story ended up stretching across several notepads, most of which are now lost, and ended abruptly when my character gets a pet centipede (a centipede the size of a dozen Ford Fiestas parked in a row, of course) and I couldn’t think of a name for the damn thing. The last sentence was literally “I think I’ll name you-” and then it ends. Somehow I had enough imagination to write about ancient temples on the surface of Pluto, but not enough to come up with an appropriate name for a venomous, oversized arthropod with a taste for human flesh.

I wrote another story about a teenage girl who gets stranded on Neptune, and another one about a band of warriors hunting a powerful demon through an enchanted forest. I got a PC at the age of thirteen and I started typing my stories, leaving the notepads behind. When I was 14, I wrote a science fantasy novel influenced in no small part by Dune, Star Wars, and a game I was playing at the time called Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. The story ran 250 pages in length, and to date it’s the only true novel I have completed. As I got more serious about writing, I developed a more critical eye with which I regarded my work. I wrote short stories and poems for years, often planning and starting novels but never getting past about 5000 words or so. I told myself that eventually I’d get my act together, that it was destined to happen, that I just hadn’t found the right idea. Maybe I hadn’t found the right idea, but that was not all I was lacking. Until 2017 I wasn’t mentally fit enough for writing a novel. But then 2017 happened. The pills started working. My brain chemistry was reaching the right balance. I started reading again. I started blogging, and during 2017 I averaged 1348.9 words across 104 posts. My 25th birthday happened, and all of a sudden everything in my life felt urgent. I had to make up for all the time I had wasted over the years. I knew that the odd short story or poem was getting me nowhere. If I really wanted to make a go of this writing business, I had to prove to myself I could write a novel.

So far the process has gone better than I ever could have hoped. With each chapter I finish, I grow stronger. It’s the best thing I have in my life right now, and when I write it I feel so happy. And happiness is the most precious thing in the world to me. When I have it, it’s like gold dust slipping through my fingers, and I’m trying to hold onto it as long as I can. The idea that I can create my own happiness simply by writing words on a page is precious to me. It’s exciting. And for me, my writing will always be inextricably linked to my mental health. I’m going to blog about what I’ve learned during the writing process in a series of short posts. Today’s tip is all about happiness when writing. I’ve learned that writing a novel should always be separate to publishing a novel. They are two different tasks and ought to be treated as such. I think the best advice for a young writer is to focus simply on writing the novel. People often ask me when I’m going to start looking into publishers and literary agents, and my answer is always the same: I got no idea. I don’t care. None of that is relevant to my current goal, and sometimes I think writers worry too much about publishing a novel as opposed to simply writing it, and writing it the best way they can. You can’t publish a manuscript that is unfinished. My attempts to write novels since studying creative writing at university were mired by thoughts of publication. My mind was never where it needed to be. While my fingers were on the first draft, my mind was in the editing room, or worse it was in the publishing house. I would criticize my work harshly and give up, instead of just writing it and editing later.

It’s a common trap for budding novelists, and nothing hurts one’s confidence more than retiring a manuscript after the first chapter. The way to avoid this trap has everything to do with happiness. And that’s why it’s so important to focus completely on the novel and not anything that ought to come later. The best way to finish a manuscript is to enjoy it. Make sure that the story you are writing is one you would want to read. Unless you truly love the work, it won’t get completed. You’ll know you have the right idea when you can’t stop thinking about it, when you wake up thinking about the characters and their predicaments. I think if you are truly passionate about your subject, then that will naturally come across in your writing. Forget publishers and book signings and prizes. I strongly believe that a writer’s focus and energy should be 100% on his or her work; it’s the difference between someone who has something to say, and someone who has to say something. Think to yourself: do I want to write a novel, or do I want to write this novel? Be confident, follow your gut instincts, and blaze a trail that is entirely your own.

What My Degree Taught Me About Writing Fiction

When I was a student of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, there was one seminar in particular that stood out to me. It was the final semester before graduation, and we were all packed into this airy room on the top floor of an old stone building that reminded me of Hogwarts. I realized when I was there that it was the first room I remembered being in when I arrived at Winchester as a freshman in 2011. I hadn’t been in it since, and I guess the cyclical feeling it gave me got me thinking about my degree as a whole. I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. I knew I wasn’t one of those people that celebrated it as the best time of their lives, probably going out for drinks with the professors, and forever remembering “Winchy-Winch” as their home away from home. No. I was a quiet face that no one would remember. But I was sure about one thing: the degree had made me a better writer. Even though I don’t think you need a degree in Creative Writing in order to write fiction, doing one certainly improves your technique and introduces you to a lot of ideas.

I thought about this during the seminar- what I had learned and what the whole thing was worth. My conclusion was that the true value of the program was in the way it brought together a lot of interesting- but imperfect- ideas. There are no secrets to Creative Writing. There’s no formula that, once cracked, explains everything. Professors, guest speakers, and peers contribute their experiences and what works for them. But every writer is different, and no one nugget holds universally true. The best usage of the degree, in my opinion, was in taking what everyone had to say and forming your own conclusion. I think one thing that new writers underestimate is the worth of their own opinion. A Creative Writing degree is not a passive process, and I don’t think the budding writer will become successful if he or she only ever tries to follow the mantra of others. If you want to write, you need to be confident, and you need to back your own ideas.

The two most famous tips handed down by professors and novelists are “Show, don’t tell” and “Get rid of those adverbs and adjectives”. They are useful guidelines, but if you look in any book, you will find passages that don’t adhere to them at all. A lot of good writing comes from pure instinct, when you stop thinking and just let your fingers type freely. If your noun has a flowery adjective or adverb attached to it that you feel is critical to the rhythm of the sentence, feel free to keep it. One such instance of it won’t kill your manuscript. If you look at some of the top authors today- I’m talking the Liane Moriartys, the Cormac McCarthys, the Rupi Kaurs- then you’ll find plenty of sentences that tell instead of show, and include nouns laced with adverbs. And these folks are the best in the business.

During my time at university I got conflicting advice from different professors. I also came to realize that editors don’t necessarily think the way writers do. One time we had a class where a professional editor from a publishing house came in to speak to us, and her perspective on what makes a good story was completely different to that of our professor. My professor disliked my story about a high school basketball player from rural Wisconsin, saying I was trying to be something I’m not, writing about an experience not my own. However the editor liked my story, and even said that it was perfectly fine that I was writing it in American English. The story later got published as a winning entry of a competition. And that’s what brings me to the heart of this post, and my realization during that seminar in my third year.

One of our professors was discussing the value of “write what you know” and told us about a novel she wrote. I think it was a love story or something like that. Anyway, she said she originally set the novel in Paris, but was advised to change it to London, and the story became better for it because she was more familiar with the latter. I’m not doubting the wisdom for that decision as it relates to that story. But I do think the mantra of “write what you know” can be misleading and limiting for new writers. Every story is different and every story approaches the concept of place in a different way. To me, a novel set in Paris has a completely different tone to one set in London. One of my favorite short stories is the American fairy tale “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. It’s a classic tale of a guy taking a massive nap in the Catskill Mountains. However, at the time of writing, Irving had never actually visited the Catskills. As a writer, you are entitled to go beyond your personal experience, if that’s where the narrative is taking you. You just have to get it right. If you look at George R. R. Martin’s background, he ought to be writing stories about dockworkers getting into fistfights with corrupt union bosses, saying “I coulda been somebody”. Instead he takes what he needs from the history of a country halfway across the Earth and creates a world based on that history that feels vivid and believable. People often take issue with someone trying to write about cultures not their own, or men writing stories about women. But if you can write well, then nothing is denied you. Philip Pullman wrote a badass novel from the perspective of a young girl, and Lois Lowry wrote an equally badass novel from the perspective of a young boy. If you want to write about Bhutan, but you live in Escanaba, MI, then go book a flight! Learn from the place- get a hold of its pulse, listen to the people, and add your own unique perspective. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot write about. So many powerful, mesmerizing books and films have been made about the Holocaust from people that didn’t live through it; what those creators did is be respectful of its history and listen to those that were there.

The mantra that always resonated the most with me is as follows: write what you want to learn about. The key to finishing a novel is being passionate about your subject. So write the kind of book you would want to read.

My Year in Review: 2017

I’m not sure what I expected from 2017, except more of the same. The same half-hearted attempts at being productive; moments of inspiration that disappeared as quickly as they came- little flashes in the great gray amorphous cloud of boredom and lethargy. The same desperate attempts to recapture isolated instances of joy, which similarly flashed briefly out of a default state of depression. I was in the mindset that nothing would ever change, for better or for worse. That I was being railroaded from one year to the next, that life existed only for me to watch- and not to create. Every year I make a resolution, but there’s always an underlying belief that I don’t have the strength, knowledge, or willpower to follow through. Each year seemed like running the same race over and over again, that I was a greyhound bolting after a rabbit that I would never attain. I’d never read all the awesome novels of the world, I’d never finally finish writing my own, I’d never meet that perfect, “wife-material” lady (somewhere between Emilia Clarke and Hannah Witton), I’d never achieve a more balanced, contented mood.

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In fact, the year started on a rather uninspiring note. I went to a New Year’s party and whilst the party itself was fun, I got pretty drunk and whenever that happens my anxiety levels really spike. I tend to peak ahead of everyone else, before suffering some kind of anxiety attack that snowballs into the morning and the rest of the week. I don’t get hangovers or anything like that, but I have a tendency whenever I drink a lot to get depressed and strangely paranoid. For the first two months of the year I didn’t do anything at all- I couldn’t sleep, I was tired all the time, and I hardly moved. But beginning with March, things seemed to get better, and the year presented me with a few surprises and a decent number of highlights to look back upon. So here’s my Year in Review for 2017:

 

  • I finally got around to passing my driving test after stopping and starting my lessons over a two and a half year period. It was a huge relief because I was close to the point where it had been two years since I passed my theory test, and if I were to fail my road test on my fourth attempt back in February, then I would have had to retake the theory exam, and I can’t think of anything more disheartening than sitting through that piece of shit again. I may have given up on the whole idea of driving altogether and waited instead for those fancy self-driving hovercrafts to take the market by storm.
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  • I had the honor of serving as the wedding photographer for my best friend Elizabeth as she married her soul mate in Witney, UK. It was an awesome experience, not just shooting the wedding, but being included in such an intimate way in the craziest week ever as my American family completely overwhelmed this quaint English village in the countryside.
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  • I got my first pair of glasses this year, after noticing that I couldn’t make out the score when watching Chelsea games or the subtitles when watching Downfall. It was really sudden how my long-distance eyesight deteriorated.
  • I started this very website, and so far it’s grown to be longer than The Hobbit. I’m real happy with myself for writing something over 100,000 words and not getting bored of it. The response from my friends and subscribers has been so encouraging, and it’s moments of kindness like those that have been the best part of the blogging experience.
  • As the year started to improve with Elizabeth’s wedding, I noticed that I was on something of a happy-streak. For once my mood seemed solid, as though I could rely on myself to be happy on a day-to-day basis. It was the first time I could actually remember feeling happy in a permanent sense. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I genuinely had never felt that sense of being happy for no reason. My mind was clear. I told Aaron and said “Maybe I don’t need the pills anymore.”
    He replied, “Don’t you think it might be that the pills are working?”
    Aaron was right. I had started out on Prozac in November 2015, before switching to Citalopram in the New Year, and doubling the dosage a few months later. It’s the kind of drug that takes an affect after a long period of use, and 2016 saw little progress except for making me ravenously hungry. So I decided to stay on the pills after my doctor told me there were no drawbacks to doing so, and that it was entirely about how comfortable I was with them in my life. 2017 has been an amazing year for my mental health; I feel happier, more productive, and I have completely stopped dwelling on mistakes, failures and depressing memories. For once I’m looking forward and I actually want myself to succeed.
  • Following up on that point, this year has seen me approach food in an entirely different way. Not just my attitude toward eating, but the very mechanics of doing so. I can now drink without looking down (something I figured was due to my fear of barfing). I don’t spend forever chewing, I eat quicker, and I eat more. Two years ago I weighed 139lbs (9.9 stone) and now I’m about 190lbs (13.5 stone). At the rate I’m going I’m gonna turn into Jabba the Hutt if I don’t swap the cheesecakes for some kale. As soon as I walked through the door to the doctor’s office this year, my doctor exclaimed “Woah, you look different!”
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  • I spent the summer in Texas with my best friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. It was my fifth period of living in the USA and the fourth summer in a row of living with the two lovebirds. It was the only summer in which I was able achieve a near-perfect balance between productivity and fun, between personal growth and social success. Highlights of my stay include tagging along to Aaron and Ann-Marie’s engagement photos, making an ass-ton of food for the NBA Draft, having the best July 4th yet poolside at a swanky apartment complex, gaining experience of sales and solar energy, making pumpkin bars with Anne-Marie, playing with our border collie Adelaide, and going to the beach on Galveston Island.
  • I started drinking coffee this year and now I don’t know how I ever managed without it. My whole schedule is built on caffeine.
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  • I have worked two jobs. Before the summer I worked as a cleaner at a bar in Nailsea. It was a pretty awful job cleaning up puke and sprayed fecal matter, but I’ll definitely carry that experience with me for life. After the summer I started working in the kitchen of a Middle-Earth-style tavern, also in Nailsea. So far I have quite enjoyed it. It’s frenetic and intense, but it’s an interesting environment. Shout out to my friend Daniel for getting me the job and going out of his way on my behalf.
  • Lastly, I have finally committed to writing an extended piece of fiction, instead of the poems and short stories I have been working on since graduation. At the moment I’m writing a novel and it’s going quite well. It’s already the longest thing I’ve written in over a decade, since that 250-page novel I wrote when I was 14 about wizards fighting sentient robots.

Thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog! It means the world to me. Let me know in the comments if you have any targets for 2018 and what you’ve learned from the year just passed.