Typewriter

By Janet Olearski

patrick-fore-0gkw_9fy0eQ-unsplash

‘I don’t think you quite understand, Nick. We’re out of time. Ten more days and they’ll want their money.’

‘Is that ten day-days or ten working days?’ I said.

‘Not funny,’ she said, and the phone went dead.

I shuffled to the fridge, rattled out the rum and re-powered the contents of my glass. Back at my desk, I took baby sips and tried to see around the yellow Post-It notes that obscured the view from my window. I reflected on the nature of obligation, read notes at random, and sipped on. I was none the wiser. I had an incoherent narrative. As the daylight faded, I saw my reflected self materialise in the shiny blackness of the pane. Then a profound thought – we need these once in a while – that without my work I would hardly know who I was. And, on staring into that dark mirror, I no longer recognised my own distorted image.

It was difficult to remember how I’d cajoled myself into starting, but I’d managed and felt smug about it. After that everything had petered out, all the juices used up, all the imagination wafted out through the air vent. I sat late into the night at my laptop, with nothing coming. A blank screen, a sense of guilt, of deep anxiety, of unhappiness. Woe, woe, woe, I’d think. Why me? Every day I’d be overcome by a bludgeoning weariness, and then I’d wake, slumped at my desk, my hair stuck to my forehead, my eyes bleary and unseeing.

Yes, I have always had a fondness for melodrama.

And now the ultimatum. I’d stalled to the limits of everyone’s patience and they were onto me. This long night I needed to step out and walk off the desperation, just follow the darkness. I needed to open some empty space in my head, like opening doors and windows to let out the bad air.

I wrestled into my jacket, my collar and cuffs askew, but what did I care? I caught sight of my face in the hall mirror as I exited the flat and it disturbed me. Surely I could look better than this? Not doing what I was supposed to do had wrecked me. Just thinking about having to do it had wrecked me.

Outside, the city slapped into my skin and blew me awake. I wandered down the road, along the pedestrian walkways, and into the market, passing stalls and small shops, cafes, restaurants, and multi-coloured people to suit all locations. I found myself a stranger in my own city, entering alleys and narrow streets I’d never ventured into before. It was Saturday night and the place was alive. This energy was a revelation to me. I’d been so wrapped up in myself and my private agonies that I’d forgotten there was a world out here to be enjoyed. I had lost months. Should I worry now about the loss of a Saturday night?

I thought I might choose some small bar with tables out on the pavement, and sit there, taking it all in, watching people come and go. I yearned for liberty, but shame was the greater emotion. So many months, so little accomplished. My conscience kept me moving. It kept me hoping that something would jar inside my head, and that I’d get one of those prophetic signs that we all pray for, the signal that tells us something … only we don’t always know what.

That’s when something did happen, and I did get the message.

I turned a corner and I lost my bearings. Not that it mattered, since I’d lost those long ago and wallowed in the self-pity of my self-imposed loss. I found myself standing, looking into the window of a dimly-lit shop. And in the semi-darkness, I saw a black, antique typewriter.

‘For Sale,’ it said, ‘one special owner.’

I pulled open the door and went in. A bell dinged. There was a man sitting behind a dark, veneered table that passed for a desk. He was turning the pages of a newspaper, his massive forearms covered in tattoos. A sliver of smoke rose from an oversized cigar in an ashtray by his side.

He looked up. ‘Hello, my friend,’ he said. ‘You need something?’

‘The typewriter,’ I said. ‘What’s special about it?’

He looked me up and down. He said, ‘It’s Hemingway’s. You know Hemingway?’

The Hemingway?’

‘Hemingway the writer.’ He sat back in his chair. ‘You know him?’ he said. He had a sourish, almost confrontational look on his face.

‘How do you know that?’ I said. ‘How do you know that it’s his?’

‘I know. Of course I know. I’m Cubano,’ he said. ‘You see the name of this shop? You see it? Cuban Curios. That’s the name and that’s what we got – Cuban curios.’

‘How much?

The man reached for his cigar, took a puff. ‘For the typewriter? Three hundred dollars.’

‘Way too much,’ I said, and I turned as if to make for the door.

‘You no have to buy it, my friend,’ he said, ‘but someone else will. You type on that…’ He gestured with the cigar towards the typewriter. ‘You type on that – you buying Hemingway. You buying… the spirit of Hemingway.’

‘That’s rot,’ I said.

For a split second the man’s eyes flared. Then they relaxed and he grinned, revealing a set of tightly-packed spindly yellow teeth. ‘Maybe you right, my friend,’ he said. ‘But I know how it work. You come here because you blocked. I see it before. Buy this, you not blocked no more.’ He took another puff of his cigar. Behind him some kind of moth-eaten animal – a gazelle, or an elk – something brown at any rate – leaned out from the wall and cast a shadow over his face.

‘You give me the money,’ he said. ‘You take the typewriter. You problems finish.’

I looked at the typewriter. How it shone. How it glowed. I wanted it. ‘Yeah, like I’ve got three hundred dollars in my pocket…’

‘I take Mastercard,’ said the man, and he reached below the table and pulled out a card machine.’

I stared at him. He stared back. Then he rattled his newspaper and continued reading.

‘Okay,’ I said, and I felt in my pockets for my card. ‘What about ribbons?’ I said. ‘Don’t I need ribbons?’

So, there I was, sitting facing the typewriter. I hadn’t much idea how it worked but I sure as Hell was going to find out. I pressed down the shift key and felt it lock. Then I pressed ‘H’ – ‘H’ for Hemingway – and it went down nice and easy, like pressing your finger into a sponge and, as it went down, the thin metal bar reared up. I let it drop and then I slid my hands across the keyboard, across his keys. They felt as though they had been moulded to the shape of my fingertips. His touch was mine now. The lights came on for me at that precise moment.

I wrote that night, the next day, the next night… and on and on. And when my agent called and said, ‘You’re paying back the advance tomorrow, Nick,’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And she said, ‘You can’t tell me you’re done…’ And I said, ‘Oh but I can. I’m done.’

Three books later, I was still going. I went out for air one Sunday evening. Dark shadows hung under my eyes, my shoulders were hunched and painful, my joints – knees, wrists, elbows – swollen, my mouth and throat parched from the self-neglect of the obsessed.

Hemingway had a lot to answer for.

I walked down through the pedestrian walkway, along the alleys and semi-familiar streets. Curiosity drove me. I realised I was looking for the shop. It took some time, but I did find it. At first I didn’t recognise where I was. The light was negligible. The building was in darkness. There was a chill in the air. I shivered and looked up, searching for the sign. And there it was – Cuban Curios. I levelled my gaze at the shop window and gave a start. A face stared back at me from the glass. My own self reflected. I leaned in close to the window, cupping my hand over my eyes. And as my vision adjusted to the gloom inside the shop, a large dark object gained definition. I blinked. And there it was, glorious and shining. Hemingway’s typewriter.

I mean… how many did he have?

jon-tyson-z_Uk5aK0FUg-unsplash

‘Typewriter’ first appeared in the literary journal Jotters United in 2014.

Janet Olearski is a London-born author and writing coach, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline JournalWasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com   Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Things Writers Ought to Know About Their Writing

From The LitFest Blog, August 2019
Emirates LitFest logo

In his classic book on writing, The Art of Fiction, the novelist and academic David Lodge says that, ‘The golden rule of fictional prose is that there are no rules.’ Before you decide that anything goes, I would urge you at least to find and learn some basic principles of writing and apply them in your work.

You might want to give some thought to the following questions as they relate to your book or story.

Have you maintained the promise of the premise?

You’ve hooked us in with the set-up to your story or novel, and we’re excited about seeing how it will develop, but then you change tack completely, dropping that idea, and taking forward a new one without satisfying our curiosity about the first.

Here’s an example. A premise might be: What will happen if two ‘friends’ who are constantly sabotaging each other go on a road trip across the UAE? We are probably expecting high jinx and some imaginative backstabbing from these two protagonists. But the story proceeds as follows: When the friends overnight at a Dubai hotel, Friend No.1 has difficulty communicating to the receptionist that his Internet isn’t working, and it’s driving him insane. Friend No.2 laughs at Friend No.1’s frustration. The story ends.

What happened to this promising story about frenemies?

It’s good, and also important, to surprise your readers with incidents they didn’t expect, but it’s unfair to cheat them completely out of the conflict you had initially promised. It’s also a missed opportunity for you as a writer to explore the quirky relationship between your characters.

Whose story is it? Do you even know?

Yes, of course you can have multiple narrators and a cast of thousands in your book, but are you sure your readers will be able to navigate their way through quite so many protagonists? Who in your story should they identify with or care about?

Bear in mind that having multiple protagonists will require multiple plots or sub-plots. Your story can risk becoming so complex that you lose your motivation trying to write it. If you’re having problems finishing your novel, this could be the reason.

Try focusing instead on a single protagonist and collapsing several superfluous characters down into just one character. If all else fails and you are determined to take forward this unwieldy saga, at least provide us with a list of characters or a comprehensible family tree to guide us through it. Hilary Mantel includes both a ‘Cast of Characters’ and a genealogical table in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Elena Ferrante, in her four Neapolitan novels, includes an ‘Index of Characters.’

And, do make sure your family tree and the contents of your novel actually match. Remember that any changes you make within your novel will have a knock-on effect, so keep a note of everything you need to check when re-drafting.

Should you write a long book or a short book?

A writer at one of our workshops once told me that her fantasy novel kept getting longer and longer. It already weighed in at around 200,000 words. This was, she said, because she kept thinking up more and more sub-plots. This is one instance when having an outline – and an overview – might have helped.

If you are a writer without a set of successful publications under your belt, a publisher will be apprehensive about spending time, effort, and money to publish and market your very long book. They’ll do it for Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, and George R.R. Martin, but will they do it for you?

How about dividing that one book into three and trying to clinch a three-book deal? Or how about trying to produce one short book of quality rather than one massive tome that rambles on through eternity?

Books

Do you know what your book is about?

You should know your work well enough to be able to tell an agent or publisher about the genre of your book, about its themes, and its likely audience. Mixing genres is fine, so long as you understand why you are doing it.

A writer I worked with recently explained to me that her book did not fit any genre or adhere to any one style of writing. She probably wasn’t far wrong. Her book was a mixture of literary fiction, non-fiction, romance, crime fiction, poetry, history, religion, and self-help. She was actually writing several different books.

It helps to think about who might want to read your book, and to focus it accordingly. It is probably only as you re-read and redraft your work that you will find out what you are really writing about. That, when it happens, will be a very sublime ‘Aha!’ moment.

Written by Janet Olearski

Janet Olearski is an author and writing coach, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. She is often surprised when she finds out what she is really writing about. It’s not always what she had originally imagined. Read more at: http://www.janetolearski.com

The Older Short-Haired Female

By Janet Olearski

IMG_5940

She was the older, short-haired female. A rather aggressive species, he thought. Older, and therefore experienced. It was fearsome for him to consider – and so he did not – the lives she had lived, might have lived, lives she had enjoyed and destroyed, the wiliness of her moves directed by her knowledge of things past and carried forward now into the future.

He had spotted her from afar, blue-winged and scarlet in her habitat, a high-flying estuary bird of a kind he had rarely observed before.

He should have known better. The older, short-haired female is not to be meddled with. Not by the likes of him. She fluttered seductively in men’s paths, knowing what she knew and applying it to her advantage. Unlike the past, when she had applied it to her disadvantage. For she had once been the prey of man. Easy prey. But then she was the younger, long-haired female, a delicate, pale creature, verging on the anorexic, easy to have, easy to please, easy to leave and take another.

Now she was a more evolved specimen, not as sleek perhaps, weathered – maybe hardened – possibly, but also, and resoundingly, magnetic, compulsive, charismatic, alluring, luring the helpless man-beast to her nest, entrapping and entangling the hopeless, hapless male in his inevitable flight towards an undefined fulfilment. But with one certainty: that once ensnared, he was never to escape. As surely as the sparrow hawk preyed on smaller birds, who ate the grubs in the earth, who ate the nutrients of the soil, the older, short-haired female played her part in the chain of man’s downfall, but perhaps also his redemption.

She sits at a mirror, a distant captive behind the wrought iron bars of her balcony. He watches her, captivated. She lifts her brush and pulls it carefully through glistening plumage. She turns her face this way and that, staring into her reflection. He experiences a private ecstasy, reserved for secret observers. Viewing her in silence, his home a hide with slits and peep holes, his home a hive of excited anticipation, as her robe floats feather-like to the carpet, he knows he must have her. And, when her silhouette slips from view, his hand caresses the curved inanimate surfaces of stolen eggs on the rich polished wood of the dresser in his bedroom, and he believes himself all powerful, a licensed thief of nature.

You must not move about or make a noise.

This is not conducive to the intimate study of birds.

It is a long-term project. He observes her habits, notes her displays. He knows little of her mating patterns, but he waits. He prepares himself for her broody promiscuity, knowing that it will disappoint him. Such is the species, but his is a scientific approach. He always bases action on careful research. When action is necessary, he takes it.

He passes her on the stairs. She looks at him, but does not see. He nods his head in acknowledgement. Her coat brushes his. She is there and, with a faint rustle, she is gone. He hears the door close behind her.

A case history. He watches and takes note. She is totally self-centred, an arrogant, intimidating creature. All the more intriguing for this. He observes. She preens herself with conviction and commitment.

You must always take care to keep your distance.

She is in her kitchen. She takes something from a cupboard. She turns her head and inclines it, as if listening. She stands immobile. She moves to the window. She pulls down the blind.

You, of all people, must comprehend the problems facing wild birds, the threats to their environment, the violation of their natural habitats.

Field observation. She is unlocking her car. She looks up as he passes. He would like to see her at close hand. He needs to know what she is like, her behaviour. The older, short-haired female always stands her ground. She stares you right in the eye. He lowers his eyes and moves on.  

There are many ways to attract wild birds, but these methods cannot

be relied upon. Frequently birds are heard but not seen.

As you must certainly know, they often appear when least expected.

He stands behind the door in the darkness of his hall. There is a circular marking of light around his eye. He watches her through his spy hole as she waits for his response to her call. He notes her restlessness and this gives him pleasure. She rings the bell, but he does not answer. He knows she will return. She will come closer and closer… until she is close enough to touch. He will wait and watch. He knows his chance will come.

‘I live across the courtyard,’ she tells him.

‘Ah, yes,’ he says.

‘I wondered if I might…’

‘Of course,’ he says.

Good fortune and a rapport with birds have brought her to him. He is masterful with birds. Silently he listens as she reports the fault from the phone in his study.

You believe in conservation. Beware. The conservation of memory and desire belongs only to human-kind. It is folly to seek in others what you find in yourself.

‘Your glove,’ he says.

‘I never missed it,’ she tells him. What she loses – or has lost – is of no consequence to her.

Yes, he will accept a drink.

He stands in her living room. He has never seen this room before. It is not within his range.

The bird is an unpredictable creature. You cannot be sure how it may react

when threatened. Take care not to alarm it.

Her flight is late.

‘I hope you won’t think me rude,’ he says, as he stands in her doorway. ‘I’ve cooked enough for two.’

He has always shown a concern for the protection and welfare of the wild bird.

She is glad of the offer.      

The light is dimmed. She perches on a stool in his kitchen. She pecks at her food, watching him. He offers her food from his own plate. Just a taste. If she will.

She will.

She grasps his hand in hers. Her nails are long and polished. She takes the food with her teeth and tongue. She is lit by the candlelight. Her eyes glint, her pupils wide and dark. His fingertips stretch towards the transparent down of eyebrows, and then to the soft pink of her lips.

‘I have her,’ he thinks. ‘I have… her.’

And one, or the other, is captivated.

He wakes in the half-light of the morning. There is a distant electric dawn. She is an early bird, humming as she splashes under his shower. He hears her voice and closes his eyes. He feels her presence in the room, an emperor and his nightingale. She rustles close by. In his dream, he turns to watch her as she bends towards the telescope. She speaks softly.

‘A perfect view,’ she says, ‘perfect,’ and her words dissolve into melodious, singing laughter. He smiles in his sleep.

Light floods his room. On the floor there is crushed eggshell, but it hardly matters. He views her through his binoculars and knows she will see him. Is this wise? She is speaking on the phone. She turns, catches sight and waves to him. She is smiling. He waves back. He is, of course, a tamer of wild birds.

‘I’ll be away. A day or two,’ she says when he calls.

‘I’ll miss you,’ he says.

‘I’ll miss you too.’

Generally, birds do not display their emotions.

 He knows this, but he has forgotten.

‘I’ll call you,’ she tells him. ‘Or you call me.’

He goes about his business. Common birds are dots in the distance, looking dark and colourless. They hardly interest him. She is his obsession now. He is aware that the migratory bird is at risk abroad and this troubles him. At his office he waits to be called, but his phone is silent. He calls her.

‘You’re back,’ he says.

Yes, she’s back.

Perhaps his feeling for birds has failed him.

But she is joyful. She longs to be with him. She says.

‘We’ll see each other soon,’ she says. ‘Call me. Any time. Day or night.’

These creatures come and go airily. They snatch what they can. They are erratic. They flit here and there. They swoop, they steal, they mislead. They are elusive. They soar out of reach. They abandon you.

Being an expert in the field does not equip you to manage it.

You have been, and were intended to be, an observer, not a participator.

He trains his telescope on her windows. Her shutters are closed.

He calls her. The answering machine engages, and he hears her voice. The sullen, serious voice of the older, short-haired female.

‘Leave a message,’ the voice tells him.

Leave a thought, an aspiration, a fear? He cannot abide his words gliding on this limbo of airways.

You must surely remember the raptors. There is a link through time, forgotten

or ignored as desires replace wisdom, as greed cancels caution.

When handling predators, you must mind the talons.

He thinks on these matters as he waits, illuminated only by his hallway’s prehistoric glow. Across the courtyard, her shutters open. It takes him by surprise. He focuses the lenses. She faces him directly. Her arm is raised. She is pointing, identifying him to others – to the men standing by her side. Waiting to spot him.

And then comes the moment when, in its impotence, as beating wings descend,

the prey is paralysed by the cognizance of its fate.

IMG_5945

‘The Older Short-Haired Female’ first appeared in Bare Fiction Magazine, April 2014.

Getting Your Stories Published

Some words of encouragement for those of you who have been trying to get your work published.

Submitting stories for publication can be a long and thankless task, but it is immensely uplifting when a story is accepted. It means that someone has read your work and has, in a sense, validated it. One of my favourite stories: A Cure For Snakebites, was sent out a total of 30 times to different literary journals between 2011 and 2017. I re-wrote the story multiple times, but essentially the heart of it remained the same. I had a message to convey and somewhere the message was embedded in that story.  Sometimes when we start writing a story – or even when we have written the first few drafts – we are not sure what our story is about. We cling to that tale because our heart says we must.

I stuck with this story for that reason. I would take it out, re-read it, tweak it, and experience a range of ‘Aha!’ moments as I began to understand what it meant for me. The writer Dorothea Brande said, “Writing is re-writing.” We need to re-write in order to dig deeply and find out what is in the pit of our subconscious. So, don’t write your story and say that you are done with it after the first draft. Look again and you will see something new. 

For readers, our stories may have many different meanings. We can explain up to a point what we were trying to say, but ultimately it must be for the reader to search and find what they are looking for in that story.

A Cure For Snakebites was finally accepted on the 31st try, by the literary journal Litro at the beginning of 2017, and I later republished it under the title Charmed in the collection  A Brief History of Several Boyfriends.

3 A Brief History of Several Boyfriends - janet Olearski

Part of the key to getting your stories published is finding the right match between your style of writing and the journal to which you are submitting. That means reading the material they publish to see if your story is likely to fit. Don’t submit at random. Your story, if you love it, deserves better than that.

 

The Write Stuff: short stories

In case you’re wondering if any good comes out of being part of a writers’ group… well, it does. This month sees the publication of The Write Stuff, a collection of stories by members of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. These are all writers who stuck with the group, read, listened, discussed, and wrote their socks off.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

Of the 14 whose work appears in the anthology, at least four are first-time authors who thought that the chance of ever getting published was either impossible or remote. But today, they are in print and on the path to future writing successes.

My formula for becoming a writer: read a lot, write a lot, re-write a lot, read some more. Don’t rush through books just to clock up numbers. You’re a writer, so read in order to learn how others write.

The Write Stuff is available now on amazon.com, on amazon.co.uk, and on Kindle.

 

Why you should stop exposing your clunky writing to the world

If you have the time, I strongly urge you to listen at least to the first half of this podcast from The Guardian newspaper of an interview with two traditionally published first-time authors.

What we learn, amongst other things, is how long it took these authors to write their books and the process they went through in the editing of them. One author spent three years on her book, the other seven years. One spent three months just doing a line edit of her novel, going painstakingly through the text with a ruler under each line, re-reading, correcting and adjusting. ‘Writers’ often hand me stories that they proudly tell me they finished just the night before… and, of course, it shows.

Another interesting piece of information from this podcast concerns the results of the last ALCS survey on author earnings in the UK. The average amount they earned was 11,000 GBP per year. This leads us to reflect on why we write and what we want from our writing. From talking to many would-be authors, I find that there is still a desire for and a belief in overnight success. Publication, they believe, will bring them the kind of glory and recognition that they are unlikely to find in other fields of work. What they do not put into the mix is that, for experienced critics and the discerning reader, the faults of their work will be on display for all to see. So, instead of showcasing their remarkable imagination and insights, they may well, through haste, and careless or the absence of editing, simply be demonstrating their ignorance and incompetence.

Everyone who can think can write, but not everyone who can write can produce work of quality. My advice for anyone publishing or hoping to publish traditionally or by self-publishing is 1) keep writing, 2) put in the work, 3) learn from your mistakes, 4) read books that have been professionally edited in order to learn, and 5) build your life around your writing, not your writing around your life.

Writing Rules

Elmet, the novel by Fiona Mozley shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was not a priority on my reading list. Ben East’s interview with the author, published in Sunday’s edition of The National turned that around. Sometimes it happens that something you read resonates with you, as it did with me on this occasion. That something was to do with Fiona Mozley’s beliefs about writing.

Elmet cover

About rules

In our workshop, we often discuss the ‘rules’ that are put about on the subject of writing. My belief is that we have to know what those rules are … before we set about breaking them to suit our purpose. Rules become myths, and this interview with Fiona Mozley gently explodes one myth, which is ‘write what you know.’

Staring out of a train window while travelling from London to York, Mozley spied ‘a collection of caravans and shanty-like structures,’ and seeing these triggered, in her words, “a sense of wanting to explore something I didn’t know about, people who were very different from me.”

On writing what you know

If you don’t know what to write about, then writing what you know might be a good place to start. I’d say go ahead and write what you know when other people know nothing about that subject. You write. We read and understand. But, what if you wrote about something you didn’t know?

This makes me think of a workshop I attended one year at the Emirates Lit Fest. The subject was ‘Writing historical fiction’ and the participants were a mixture of fiction writers who knew very little about history (like me, for example), and historians who knew very little about writing fiction. A brilliant session in which we all learned a great deal. Then, one of the historians put up her hand and asked, ‘So, if we are writing about an historical figure and there are gaps in our research, and we don’t know what actually happened, what happens then?’ The fiction writers gasped.

We all knew that when you don’t know something … you make it up.