Monday, 16 March 2009

Catching tales by the tail - Anne Rooney

Where do stories come from? The angel may be in the stone waiting for the sculptor to reveal it, but stories are altogether more flighty. Stories flit through the ether; the writer tries to capture one and put it down on paper, like a lepidopterist pinning down butterflies. But what if you don’t get it right? What if the sculptor accidentally lops off one of the wings, or hacks away at a block of stone that doesn’t actually have an angel in it? What if the story twists away and wasn’t what you thought it was?

First, catch your story. A sculptor can go to the quarry and choose the block of stone to work with. Perhaps (s)he hears the angel whispering or singing inside. Take heed, those who ask ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ – there is no idea quarry. Stories have their own ways and behave differently for each writer.

Stories can be petulant, selfish, demanding. Or they can be promiscuous, taking over the zeitgeist so that suddenly everyone is writing the story you thought was uniquely yours. Often, a story gambols across the path when I’m too busy to do anything with it, demanding I drop everything. (My last ghost story, The Hanging Tree, jumped out of the shadows on the way to Waitrose. I had to buy a pen and scribble the idea on toilet paper stolen from the loo.) The story taunts me with its flashy, iridescent colours. It flicks past, so that I catch it out of the corner of my eye, and then it’s gone. Moments later, it returns to run backwards and forwards, saying ‘look how beautiful I am, why aren’t you taking any notice? Think what you could do with me!’ [a bit like boys, really] But when I have time to write and want a story to come, suddenly they’re all too coy. If I sit quietly, or do something else, look away, pretend I don’t care, a story might wander by.

Then there’s the catching of the beast. It’s like catching lizards. Sometimes it slips away completely, sometimes the tail snaps off in my hand leaving a useless end that twitches for a while but won’t grow a new lizard. Given long enough to grow a new tail, the story may be back and catchable, but often not.

The difficulty is in recognizing when you’ve got a lizard-less tail and when you’ve got a tail-less lizard. Does this story just need a bit of sorting, or is it never going to work? I’ve been working on a picture book text for the last few months which, I think, is a lizard in need of a tail – there are only a couple of problems with the narrative. But it will present a challenge to the illustrator that might be insurmountable. I have great faith in illustrators, but not being one myself I can’t be sure if I’m asking too much. This might just be a very long tail that’s going nowhere, but it’s still twitching so far, so I’m hopeful.

1 comment:

Lucy Coats said...

Love the lizard analogy, Anne. Perhaps if you creep up behind that story very quietly, you will catch it, tail and all. Even if the tail drops off in your hand (as they do), you will still have all the bits to make an eventual whole....