by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

My Day On Twitter; Or, How I Blatantly Recycle My Own Material

Posted 26 March 2009 in by Catriona

I’m very new to Twitter: I’ve not been using it for much more than a week. And, like many people, I was driven to it by Facebook.

Not by the new Twitterised Facebook design that so many Facebook users are denigrating, but by the fact that I really enjoy writing my Facebook status update. I started worrying that I was changing my status too often, and that this wasn’t giving people a chance to comment—and the ability to comment on status updates is one of the better changes Facebook has made in the time I’ve been using it.

Twitter seemed like a useful alternative: I could minimise my rewriting of my status update and yet still indulge my desire to frequently describe what I was doing in 140 characters or fewer.

That’s what delights me about both Facebook status updates and Twitter: that severe restriction of the word limit. I’ve worked with restricted word limits before—almost everything I write has some kind of word limit. But never, ever as restricted as this.

And I love the challenge. I love the way it forces me to sharpen my syntax, to think of synonyms that are equally effective but shorter, to make my point clear while removing all the pronouns from a sentence.

Oh, I’ve seen the arguments against Twitter, but that challenge is why I’m enjoying it—like my live-blogging over the last year, it’s a form of writing like no other I’ve ever done. With live-blogging, I have to be able to write quickly but succinctly, to be accurate and descriptive but also to provide commentary, to be able to keep the shape of the plot in place, to decide immediately what can be omitted without losing the reader. With Twitter, I’m forced to think constantly about the shape of what I’m writing, to compress it to a smaller, neater form.

But what’s an argument without examples? Since I’ve been writing on Twitter more often today than usual, here are today’s tweets in chronological order, earliest first:

Wondering what the “remember me” button on Twitter log-in page does? (Except for reminding me of Futurama episode.) It’s not remembering me.

Forced by presence of giant moth in garage to climb into car through passenger side. Hand brake really inconveniently placed, in my opinion.

Then nearly hit garage door on way out, because was for some reason obsessively checking whether moth moved, even though was secure in car.

Couldn’t get parked at uni, and had to drive home frantically and try to catch a bus that would get me in for my AFS hours. Success!

But had to leave car in driveway because of running late. If anyone drives though fence, may implode like Jagoroth ship in “City of Death.”

Then sat on bus behind teenage boy who had exactly the same haircut as I do—only it may have looked better on him. Strange day.

No students have come to see me. Such odd work, this: hours of frantic marking activity followed by stretches of silence and self-doubt.

But at least I’m not pursuing either a real or metaphorical Minotaur through stretches of labyrinthine programming code beyond my ken.

Nearly sideswiped by red Mazda with “That’s so sexual!” decal. Feel presence of such a decal cannot but cheapen my tragic, untimely death.

None of this is great literature, of course. No immortal thoughts. No “Eureka!” moments. Just anecdotes about my day in 140 characters or fewer, each one a tiny, unique writing challenge.

But How Do You Work That Into The Narrative?

Posted 20 March 2009 in by Catriona

I shall start with a disclaimer: I am actually really enjoying what I’ve read (some three chapters) of P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which I’ve never read before, despite the fact that it was published in 1972 and I’m a big fan of certain sorts of detective fiction.

(I’ll be honest: I think part of what I like about it is that Cordelia dislikes Adam Dalgliesh as much as I do. Of course, she hasn’t met him, so that might change, but I do hope not.)

But what really fascinated me about the character so far is that when Cordelia is asked what her father did, she replies, “He was an itinerant Marxist poet and an amateur revolutionary.”

Really? Because that’s a complicated back story for a character who is dead before the book starts. It’s not that implausible: Cordelia’s twenty-two in 1971, so while her father may be too young to remember the rise to influence of the Fabian Society in the Edwardian period, he is certainly old enough to have been permanently inspired by the participation of some English left-wing sympathisers in the Spanish Civil War.

Or, you know, he could just have strong left-wing sympathies because he read Das Kapital at an impressionable age.

There’s just something about this that made me think, “Well, what a complex back story for a character who, as far as I can tell, is never going to appear in the book.” (If this is P. D. James’s foray into zombie fiction, don’t tell me. I want to be surprised.)

So, just in case I ever write a novel, I’ve come up with some pick-and-mix sentences that I can drop in to the narrative when someone asks my protagonist what her father does for a living.

  • He was a chiropodist, but it was really just a way for him to get paid for being a foot fetishist.
  • He provided freelance flower illustrations for amateur gardening magazines and on weekends scoured antique shops to try and improve his collection of Victorian apostle spoons.
  • He tried working as a waiter once, but apparently he had some kind of phobic response to damask.
  • He was a turtle fancier by inclination, but my mother talked him into becoming a chartered accountant on the grounds that the work was less seasonal.
  • He mostly subsisted on the loose change he found down the back of friends’ sofa cushions.
  • He shouted at the managers of struggling suburban theatre companies until they agreed to stage one of his series of five-act tragedies about Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.
  • He had a shoe-shine stand near the station until he developed an unshakeable conviction that it was possible to buff suede. Actually, we don’t really like to talk about it.
  • He’s actually a highly paid mercenary in a war as old as time itself, fought across the dimensions and in the shadows of planets, bringing humanity and every other species in the universe to the brink of destruction without their knowledge or understanding—but we used to tell people that he managed a strip-club so they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
  • He claims he’s a steward on the Titanic, so we’re not actually quite sure what he’s been doing for a living since 1912. Really? It’s never seemed that implausible to us.

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