February 2009

Are cliffhangers necessary?

by Suw on February 28, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about my style of writing, and about what’s missing from my current draft of The Revenge of the Books of Hay. I read Cory Doctorow‘s Little Brother recently. It is quite probably the best thing that Cory has ever written and definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s utterly gripping, and I found it incredibly difficult to put down. I was reading it on Stanza on my iPhone, which meant I was reading it at the gym, on the bus, on the tube, in bed… pretty much anywhere I could find a moment to read. I haven’t been that drawn into a book in ages; although now that Kevin and I read to each other most nights, so I rarely read book on my own now and reading together is a very different thing to reading solo.

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over the question of cliffhangers. Vince is pretty good at creating cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that make you want to keep reading, and of course, plenty of other authors are too. Cory has a really big one at the beginning of Little Brother than nagged at me the whole way through, as I was dying to find out what happened. I’m not really all that great at cliffhangers. In script writing, we learn to “get in late and get out early”, to make scenes tight and concise and to try and keep a sense of tension going. But in my prose, my scenes tend towards the opposite: I get in early and get out late. I let the whole thing unfold slowly, and the end of the scene has a comfortable “closed” feeling to it.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I had been operating on the assumption that I’ll have to go back and try to imbue some of my scenes with at least a hint of tension, but when I was talking with a friend of mine last week, she asked a really insightful question: Why? Er, um, yeah…

I guess it really comes down to the fear that what I’m writing will be, when all is said and done, a bit dull. I don’t mind if people think it’s silly, or daft, or strange, or awkward. Or even if people don’t understand it at all. But I would be gutted if they thought it was dull. Maybe I’m being premature, though, as I’ve still a lot to write and rewrite before the thing even reaches the “in first draft” stage.

Either way, I’d like to know what people think about cliffhangers. Like them? Hate them? Prefer books without them? See them as a trite trope, overused and difficult to execute well? Or are they essential to retaining a sense of tension and suspense?

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In early November last year, I had steroid injections in both wrists to try and treat my carpal tunnel syndrome. After some initial side effects, the injections seemed to have done the trick. Instances of pins and needles in my hands over night decreased to nothing and I pretty much forgot that I’d had RSI. Until mid-January, when it all came back with a vengeance.

I had nine nights during January where I was getting pins and needles almost every night, and not just once, but two or three times, and it’s been like that, off and on, ever since. Now, don’t underestimate these pins and needles – it’s like a non-painful type of pain. It wakes you right up, and it keeps you awake until they’re gone. I discovered that if I stretch my neck in a certain way (away from the affected hand) the pins and needles would vanish almost immediately, almost all the time. Good trick – it helps me not wake up too much when an attack comes on.

So yesterday I went back to the physio to see what he had to say about it. Apparently, the steroids wear off in about five or so weeks, so I mine worked for about nine, which isn’t bad but not all that great either. The physio is reluctant to give me more steroids, as you can only have three injections a year and if they only work for nine or so weeks, it won’t help long term. Instead he’s referring me to the surgeon for an assessment for, well, surgery.

I’ve already had a number of tests, which have taken the form of flexing my wrists in certain ways, and pushing hard on certain points in my neck and shoulders, and I come up negative for all of them. My physio did them all again yesterday, and despite the fact that I had concluded that it’s all in my neck, he said that the tests he did proved it wasn’t.

So the first thing the surgeon will do is a “conduction” test:

In a nerve conduction study, electrodes are placed on the hand and wrist. Small electric shocks are applied and the speed with which nerves transmit impulses is measured. In electromyography, a fine needle is inserted into a muscle; electrical activity viewed on a screen can determine the severity of damage to the median nerve.

Then they’ll decide whether surgery is a good idea or not.

Now, I used to be a big gung-ho about surgery, until I actually had some. Having a naughty mole removed (twice! (with pics)) made me think a bit harder about what surgery actually means, and now I’d really rather avoid it if at all possible.

I’m not actually suffering any pain or discomfort during the day. Occasionally I get a strange sensation in my hands, but it’s not pain, it’s more a physical feeling of something wrong. It’s hard to describe accurately, but you’d know it if you felt it.

I am, however, having a lot of back pain, and I have a long, long history of some quite serious back problems. I’ve had chiropractic treatment for years, and without it I would be in a right mess now, so my first instinct is to go back to that. I had been seeing someone in Islington, but like all these things, quality varies. I lost faith in her after she suggested that the pins and needles in my fingers could be diabetes, but failed to spot that it was more likely (given my general health) to be carpal tunnel.

So that means I need to find another. I’ve had a chiro and a physio recommended to me, but they are both out of London and it would be a bit of a trek for regular consultations. A London clinic recommended by someone I don’t know looks rather expensive, and I’m not exactly what you could call rolling in it right now. I’ve had acupuncture before and that worked well for certain types of problem. I’ve been told that for some people with RSI it can work, but to be honest, I’m willing to try it regardless, because having tiny needles stuck in you is better than having your wrists slit open.

My chiro down in Dorset, who’s very good but too far away for regular visits, has told me that carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t something that she can fix. That may be the case, but I’d like to rule chiro out through experimentation. My spine needs attention anyway so I’ll benefit from getting it all sorted out and put back in the right place. And if I still suffer the pins and needles, I’ll move on to acupuncture. Surgery has to be a last resort.

But it’s important to say that this is not like the mole, where there was a danger it would turn cancerous and where it was important to move swiftly and excise every last bad cell. If I had another mole go bad, I would not hesitate to get it removed. There are some things that alternative therapies such as chiropractic can do, and there are things that they can’t. Right now, I don’t know which category my RSI falls into, so I’m just going to have to find out.

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Being solitary with someone else

by Suw on February 22, 2009

Earlier in the month, Vince blogged about Valentine’s Day and being single and writing:

Now, it was only the other day that I realised how many things I’ve deferred on the grounds of being single. I have films I’ve bought that have gone unwatched. I’ve never bothered to take my driving test. Boxes full of unused junk lie around the flat. All things undone because I didn’t have anyone to do them with or do them for.

Yet… writing tends to be a solitary, selfish endeavour. It occupies the mind, it takes time and devotion and I suspect if there was a someone else, I would end up neglecting either them or the writing. And as illustrated above, I’m not sure if I can *not* write. Especially because all those worries and anxieties and petty neuroses that prey on the mind during the mundanity of day-to-day existence, they can’t compete with the excitement of conjuring up a new story.

So, yes, sometimes I do rue being single on Valentine’s Day, but not when I’ve got a new story to write.

Having spent most of my life living on my own, I can totally understand this line of reasoning. When you’re on your own, you can please yourself – if you wake up at 3am with an amazing idea, you can turn on the light and write it down and not have to worry if you’re disturbing anyone. You can stay up til all hours writing. You can devote yourself to your words without worrying if someone else is feeling neglected.

I noticed just how true this was whilst Kevin was away. I started writing my current story on 25th October 2008 (and so much for finishing it in a month!), whilst Kev was in the US, and it was relatively easy to get back into the rhythm of it. I tried to hand-write four pages every day, and whilst I wasn’t hugely disciplined, I managed it more often than I didn’t.

When Kevin returned, it suddenly got a lot harder to find the time to write. Obviously I spend 9 or 10 hours every day not in Kevin’s company, but I find it hard to write during the day, except on weekends. “Work” encompasses a lot of things, but it doesn’t yet include writing fiction. I hope one day it will, but right now it’s something I have to find time for in the evenings.

But it felt rude to sit and write whilst Kev was in the room. Our flat is so small that once can’t really go off and hide in another room to concentrate, and even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I love spending time with Kevin – that’s why I married him! – and I don’t want to start hiding myself away from him in order to write.

When you really look at it, though, the “problem” is just a construct. Kevin and I spend plenty of time of an evening just doing whatever it is that we do on our computers. We sit together, either at the dining table or on the sofa, and we do stuff. What’s the difference between sitting next to him and processing email, and sitting next to him and writing? Functionally, nothing. So really it’s just a matter of me becoming comfortable with the idea of writing whilst in the same room as someone else.

It helps that Kevin loves writing too, so sometimes we allocate time to sit and write and that puts me in the right frame of mind. But for the rest of the time, I’m just learning to decide to be in the right frame of mind and get on with it.

I suppose that it could be difficult if one were with a person who didn’t have their own interests, but I can’t imagine I’d put up with a relationship like that for long anyway.

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