I’m writing this blog as I shelter on the island of my bed, hoping that the spider of unusual size (SOUS) in my flat won’t climb up to join me. This blog is partly being written because I promised someone in our writing group that I would write one, as a way of saying thank you for driving out to see me when I was having a panic attack due to the SOUS. I suspect I owe them chocolates or some proofreading too.
You’re probably wondering when I’m going to get around to saying something literary. Something useful to you as a fellow writer. I’m not promising much but let’s see.
The SOUS episode has reminded me of a friend once saying that they didn’t know whether I got myself into ridiculous situations fairly often, or if I just spun a funny yarn out of things that tend to happen to everyone. On reflection I think it is that I both have a tendency to over-react and to process silly events by telling my friends about them in exaggerated detail. And surely, these are good instincts for a writer.
The stories we tell are based in our everyday experiences. Whether the narrator is a 20-something year old woman trying to find herself in a chick-lit novel, or an ageless bug-shaped alien trying to take over a colony on Saturn, there will be something about their tale that the reader can identify with. It could be a shared experience (kissing a lot of frogs on the way to Mr. Right) or an emotional response (empathising with the pain of loss when bug-alien loses his home world). We use the real to make the unreal believable.
The claim I’m trying to make here is that one of the skills involved in writing is to take the mundane, the everyday, and elevate it. Use it to engage the reader, use it to ground something fantastical and make it feel tangible, turn something that happens to people all the time into a gripping, page-turner of a theme.
So when I tell the story of how I screamed when I saw the SOUS, hyperventilated and cried, knocked on my neighbours’ doors (who I’m bloody sure chose not to answer when they saw me through the peephole and I don’t even blame them), then called a friend because I could find no audience to ask and 50:50 wasn’t a viable option, and found that the SOUS was nowhere to be seen so the poor friend had come all that way for nothing (not true, it was emotionally if not practically helpful), and how I ended the night cowering and writing this blog without having eaten dinner because the beast was last spotted near the kitchen, I’ll elevate it into something majestic.
Finding the Time to Write
In my dreams, all writers spend their days living out a Barbara Cartland-esque life; dressed in pink marabou, shih-tzu hoiked under the typewriter-free arm. Ensconced in an all-weather summerhouse at the bottom of the rose garden, perhaps broken up by a welcome visit from a thoughtful partner bringing high tea halfway through the afternoon.
In reality, I sit down at my keyboard. (After fighting the dog for the seat.)
Crack my knuckles, left and then right. Lock fingers into a steeple and then stretch.
The mouse finger hovers over the internet button.
Is that the time already? I’m going to be late for work. I wrestle to pull on a pair of tights whilst on the phone to the bank, feed the goldfish the top layer of my toast crumbs, and then dash off for the day. Returning, drained of creativity, the most imaginative I get is my choice of alphabetti over spaghetti.
Writing is hard to pack around living. Aside from the jokes about writers having the tidiest, organised homes, as a distraction activity from getting down to work, it takes planning and discipline to maintain those precious spaces in the day.
I aim for a target of 1000 words a day; I’d rather get them done as early as I can, so set my alarm clock for a shade of daylight darker than I’d like. It’s a slow process on some days, and can take several hours, but it is achievable. Then I get to spend the rest of the day on a joyful breeze of contentment.
The act of writing is a pleasure, and coupled with the feeling of reaching a goal each day, is bliss. So the moral of my tale, I think, is to set your goals really low. No, no. The moral is to just keep on writing, no matter what. Make the time for what is important to you, and life will find its own level around it.
By writing 300 words a day, only on weekdays, you’ll have a novel in a year. And the ghosts of dead goldfish will follow you for the rest of your days. Happy writing!
The Joys of Listening
Recently I was lucky enough to be asked by my publishers, Quercus, to take part in a telephone book group discussion with a number of blind and partially-sighted book lovers, organised by the RNIB. Throughout the call, I was aware that, whilst my reading experience is via a physical tactile relationship with the printed word, for the other participants their access to novels came from listening to them through the amazing recordings made by the producers of talking books. And this got me thinking.
Sometimes when I read I do so as a writer; I’m aware of the author’s writerly techniques, such as plotting, pacing, character development, the creation of settings and atmosphere, and the overall hook of the story – the ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ of it that keeps us turning the pages. One of the reasons I love reading other people’s books is because, now I know some of the craft, joy, pain and effort that must have gone into the final product, it is a much more multi-layered experience.
However, I also read as a reader and, like many others, have my own sensory perceptions of the world created by the novel; its scents and colours, the physical spaces its characters occupy, the sounds of their voices in my head.
But, as a poet, I am very aware of advantages of hearing literature read aloud. I can often be found standing in my dining room with the door closed reading a poem out loud to my cats to test its cadences and rhythms, to track its tumble down the page from the opening to the last line and thereby assess how successful it may or may not be in conveying the story or message I want it to convey.
So it is with talking books. They gift the listener a unique insight into a novel. It is a way, I believe, of suspending disbelief that’s both profound and generous. Listening to a story being read aloud is comforting and challenging. It’s comforting perhaps because it reminds us of our childhood and of stories at bedtime, while it’s challenging because the world with which we are being presented is a three dimensional one which our imaginations are invited to people and to occupy. We get caught on the updrafts of the actors’ voices; we hear the emotion in the dialogue, we hear the drama of the action. It’s like being on a rollercoaster of words.
I’ve recently had the privilege of listening to the audio CD of my novel The Perfect Affair and, on numerous occasions, could be found sitting in my car outside my house after a journey not wanting to turn the CD off; not because I wanted to know what would happen next (because of course I already did), but simply because I was lost in the joys of listening.
I find that when I’m working on a novel my characters move in with me. They arrive slowly, are a faint sketch at first and then slowly the pencil lines thicken, more details get added until they are three-dimensional people who have texture and movement. I like to think I know them, warts and all, and the theory is that I have time in my novel to let my reader get to know them too. I test them out as the story unfolds, give them back-stories, favourite foods, irrational hopes and fears, parents, grandparents, children; they drive cars, inhabit many different scenes and settings, have secrets, like certain types of music. Also, because I have 80,000 words or so at my disposal I have the gift of a linear and vertical kind of space in which they can grow and act. What I’ve found is that with short story writing things are very different.
In a short story, the characters have to arrive fully-formed. They have to leap from the page outlined by only the deftest and minimalist strokes of the writer’s pencil. Moreover, the times and places in which they act out their dramas have to be delineated by the cleverest use of associative allusions and neatest of descriptions and this is what A.J. Ashworth does so well.
I’ve just read her collection of short stories, ‘Somewhere Else, or Even Here’* published in 2011 by Salt Publishing and, with each story felt that I was tied to a fishing line being cast out as the story started and then gently and expertly reeled back in as the story wound to its conclusion.
What intrigued me most of all was trying to identify the point at which what I’d learned about her characters and plots shifted from being part of the journey out to part of the journey back. However what I found was that I didn’t mind not being able to do so at all. I just enjoyed the ride. In each of the stories I felt I was in the hands of an expert angler: the surface of the lake was smooth and sun-strewn; we would start in the morning and end as evening fell and, at each final sentence, a gleaming fish would slap on the deck of the boat and look up at me with its wise eyes and this, I have discovered, is the true art of short story writing.
Of course, I would always put the fish back; letting it drop over the side of the boat and beat its way back to the deep.
*- ‘Somewhere Else, or Even Here’ is the book chosen for Reading Writers’ Summer Book Club by the 2014 winner of the Don Louth Award, Hanne Larsson.
ABC to Read
At Reading Writers we’re in the process of completing an anthology to showcase the work of our members. All profit from the book will be donated to a local charity and we are delighted to be supporting ABC to Read.
ABC to Read is a small Berkshire-based charity whose volunteers work in approximately 50 primary schools across the county. Throughout the school year each volunteer works with three children who are having difficulty reading. Twice a week they spend half an hour with the children on a one-to-one basis, building up their confidence and ability.
Back in March I had a look at the charity’s website (www.abctoread.org.uk) and as I enjoy writing for children I was interested in joining them. With a busy life, however, I wondered about this level of commitment. I just needed a push.
This push came the following day when another member of Reading Writers, Josh, emailed me. ABC to Read had invited Reading Writers to give a talk at their volunteer forum, being held to celebrate their tenth anniversary. I didn’t need asking twice!
I emailed Marcia Rowling, Chief Operating and Development Manager at ABC to Read, to confirm Josh and I would be coming along. I asked her about volunteering, giving her a brief overview of my CV, and within minutes she had replied with instructions to complete an application form! Now I’m really thinking this is meant to be!
Having had my interview by the time Josh and I met the volunteers for tea and cake, I was proud to announce that I would be joining them. I was inspired by listening to the people at the forum, and really excited about completing my two days’ training.
I attended the training course in Slough, along with nine other volunteers. We were an eclectic bunch: a mix of men and women, with our ages ranging from twenty something to sixty something (I’m guessing here, because I was too polite to ask actual ages!). Some people had grown-up children, some had young children and others no children at all. It really makes no difference. We gelled as a group and I’ve swapped email addresses with lots of new friends. In fact, we were so ‘enthusiastic’ (we never stopped talking), the tutor had trouble controlling us!
Before I started my training I imagined working with the children would be pretty much as I remembered from my time as a parent helper fifteen years ago – a few flash cards and placing a finger under difficult words to help sound them out. Not at all! The emphasis is on building children’s self-esteem and confidence through exploring language. An example of this could be through games, puzzles, drawing together or sharing a wide variety of reading materials.
The training was really enjoyable, although it obviously had a serious side (child protection). One of my everlasting memories will be playing the ‘Bus Game’ with a new friend, a retired solicitor in his sixties. The idea of the board game was to collect as many passengers as possible – and I won!
The ethos of ABC to Read is all about building confidence, trust and self-esteem and then working towards reading. It’s not about reading schemes – it’s about finding and bringing out the individuality of each child.
I’m delighted and proud to be working for the charity, and as I’m writing this, I’ve had a phone call to say I’ve been placed in my local school. I’m really excited about completing my training and meeting my children – I’ve lots planned for them!
Reading on the Train
I must admit I can’t help feeling like a Neanderthal at times. Since I work in IT apparently my house should be filled with technology: a television so large it could act as a wall, a toaster capable of emailing, and possibly even an oven with its own twitter feed. It’s not true, the television is nothing to swoon for, all the white goods just carry out their job without boasting to followers, and as for tablets, the only ones ever found in my bag are made from ibuprofen. Me, I just sit on my dated sofa amongst this technological absence, and read books made of paper.
I might exist in a machinery Dark Age, but still I feel superior to people with e-book readers. Not just because I might be hanging onto the past, but also, unlike those who hide behind sleek thin designs and brightly coloured leather protectors, I can blatantly advertise my reading choices with the image on the cover. People nearby can see my intellectual prowess as I wave my literary tome around, or whatever lightweight mush I choose after finding that too hard work. Yet, sometimes I wish I could hide away whatever it is I’ve chosen.
I don’t normally read books on trains. My usual entertainment is someone else’s discarded free newspaper. Not recently, however, as I have found myself a book: “The Murders of the Black Museum” by Gordon Honeycombe.
It isn’t new – I got it from a charity shop while browsing one lunchtime in amongst the store’s menagerie of china shire horses, dated clothes and 1980’s CDs. It is the account of real crimes as represented by exhibits in the Black Museum. In a morbid way I’ve found myself drawn in, and have gone searching the internet for references. It turns out the museum is real and belongs to the London Metropolitan Police. Subsequently named The Crime Museum it holds a ghastly array of real life crime souvenirs. May be I should go, I’ve been thinking, anything for a bit of freak show style curiosity and gawping, and besides I am a writer so it is just research, not that I would be in any way rubbernecking the contents like some juicy motorway accident.
I am also not alone in my curiosity. The book contains examples that resulted in public hangings, which were a spectator sport in a way – with the most disreputable criminals being hideous celebrities of their day. Many people would turn out to greet the arrival of murderers and jeer and protest as they were transported between courts. Madame Tussauds employees even pursued to bolster their own selection of authentic murder related bric-a-brac and made waxworks of some of the most notorious.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. There might be a public police museum one day, but this one is for police education only, and morbid curios…. er, writers, need not apply.
I do still have the book as a kind of museum catalogue. It is unfortunately quite large and my edition is bright red and has black and white photos of knives, masks and mug shots on the front. To me it looks more like a manual to crime than just an interesting read and I am feeling slightly embarrassed when I retrieve it from my bag. I’m concerned other people might think the same and judge me as planning for some new dastardly career. In this case, I might actually be pleased for the anonymity of an e-book. However, I have my past-clinging to think about so I might just settle for being discrete with the cover. And at nearly two inches thick surely that must say something about my intellect.
Your writing and you…
Imagine you’re at the pub with your friends and your writing comes in the door, blown in on a March wind, raindrops in its hair. You haven’t seen it for a while, but tonight it’s a little blowsy, raggedy at the edges, very self-conscious. You make the necessary introductions. It smiles politely to the others then nudges you on your arm and says, ‘We need to talk.’
From somewhere deep down come the painful memories of the other times this has been said to you; by girlfriends and/or boyfriends in university bedrooms, by parents standing in the hallway holding out the phone bill, or by your boss at work.
‘OK,’ you say, following your writing to a quiet corner at the back of the pub, next to the slot machines. Out of a speaker above your heads comes ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams. (If you were writing this scene in a novel, this would be ironic.) ‘What’s up?’ you ask.
‘We never get to go out together anymore,’ your writing says, looking briefly over its shoulder at your friends who are drinking their beer and checking their phones. ‘I was,’ it adds, ‘important to you once.’
‘You still are,’ you say, reaching out a hand and touching the material of its coat which is, you notice, still damp from the rain.
‘But I was your genre-searching/voice-finding/practice work/debut,’ it says. (Dear Writer, please delete where applicable.) ‘Now, I worry that if we met in the street, you wouldn’t recognise me. Or, more importantly, I wouldn’t recognise you.’
‘It’s OK,’ you say. ‘Yes, I’ve moved on, but you were my ‘kick from the shore’, I do still remember you and hope, even though I’m writing something else now/have put you under the desk/in the waste basket/at the back of the bookshelf (Dear Writer, please delete as applicable again) you will always know me and the writer I might become.’
Your writing shrugs, picks a tissue out of its pocket and blows its nose. With the tissue comes a semicolon or two, the odd marvellous sentence you once wrote, the memory of holding your first published novel in your hands and they spin to the floor. Taking hold of your writing’s hand, you make your way back over to your friends by the bar. ‘Whose round is it?’ you ask.
Your writing and you lean up against one another companionably as someone says, ‘It’s mine, what d’ya want?’ and the pub’s playlist changes to ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ by Gotye.
Being the Don Louth Writer
Every year in darkest November, we nominate a member of Reading Writers for our Don Louth Writer of the Year. We boast a variety of genres, writers’ aspirations and reasons for nominations and each year is refreshing.
I only met Don the once – in the pub during a summer social when he explained his funeral arrangements to me in great detail. (It was an awkward conversation, but also, refreshing in a non-English way). Over pints of ale and glasses of white wine, I met him and this group for the first time. He seemed as happy and enthusiastic about new writers joining (new blood, he called me) and writing as could be expected under the circumstances. He made quite an impression on me for his generosity and life force.
In his will, he left Reading Writers a sum of money, with the express wish of encouraging writers and their personal successes. His view of writing wasn’t that it should be publishing success alone, but rather, that it should reflect and acknowledge the commitment that a particular writer has made to their craft during the course of the year.
To me, it seems that we forget that journey we make as writers in striving for a recognised goal, an industry accepted standard if you will. We forget the testing and refining of the methodology, understanding our own lives in trying to understand how to write about them and reading all genres in order to work which ones grab us and make us want to improve on them. We forget the sheer joy of words on paper, finding the one verb or adjective that describes the emotion – all as we try to sell our work and get published. Publication isn’t easy, but it is recognisable as a goal.
I am the Don Louth Writer for the Year and I’ve come to realise that having more published work would be brilliant. It’s still something I’m aiming for. However, I’m going to slow down, smell the ink and look at how every word sparkles as it dries. That’s what Don wanted us to realise and that’s what every member at Reading Writers is so excellent at nurturing and celebrating.
Reading Writers: A Real Writing Community
Recently, my colleagues at Reading Writers secured their 2,500th follower on Twitter. To celebrate this, they kindly suggested we give away a signed copy of my novel, The Moment. Now, whether it was coincidence, providence or some other force for good, our 2,500th follower turned out to be a former member of our group and it got me thinking …
One of the many things I love about writing is the sense of community it brings with it. Writers are linked to one another by the formal organisations to which we belong, by social media, by sharing what we write and read, by our hopes and fears, by the baring of our souls to one another, by some refreshing silliness and much laughter. And we’re connected not just to those with whom we work now, but by those we’ve known and loved who have moved away, stopped writing or gone to that vast and inexplicable library in the sky.
At Reading Writers we have a long list of Associate members; writers who have been with us for a time and then have left our number and it’s truly wonderful to be able to keep in touch with them, to call on their help and support when we need it and to offer ours should they ever need it.
One such writer is Tahereh Javedy. Tahereh has been a member of Reading Writers for 27 years and is shortly to move away from the area. Of course she takes with her our love and gratitude for her wise counsel, but I believe it’s what she leaves with us that’s more significant. Our community is all the richer for our having her with us all this time. We will continue to be more than the sum of our parts because of her brave and tender poetry, her searingly honest prose and her fabulous Persian cooking! Some current members won’t know her well and future members probably won’t get the chance to meet her for now. But, we are a community of writers; past, present and future and so what I’d like to say to all those who have left our group over the years, and especially to Tahereh now, is that you may not be with us in person, but part of you will always remain in the air, dust, pencil shavings, commas and coffee cups of our meetings.
Tahereh’s website can be found here.
I like laughing. I like laughing at non PC stand-ups. Why? Because they make me laugh.
I started listening to standup comedians when I was three on steam radio in 1951. Worker’s Playtime on The Light Programme. There were lots of them and they all had catch phrases.
‘I won’t take me coat off I’m not stopping.’ Ken Platt.
‘Hello playmates.’ Arthur Askey.
‘Well you do, don’t ya.’ Albert Modley.
‘I like the girls who do. I like the girls who don’t. But most of all I like the girls who say they don’t. But look like they… Here now listen. Miller’s the name lady. There will never be another.’ Max Miller ‘The Cheeky Chappie.’
Are any of those words funny these days? Well the last one still is. I think. The other three, no not really. But what made them funny, was the delivery and the timing within the delivery. You knew Ken Platt would deliver those words with a down beat depressed northern accent and he just wanted a member of the audience to shout out. ‘Thank God for that! And they did. Equally with Arthur Askey, the audience would reply with, ‘Hello Arthur.’ Immediately there was a rapport with the audience, a little man with boundless energy and enthusiasm singing a silly song about a bee. Is that funny? It was then. Arthur Askey was a huge star. He had the audience in the palm of his hand right from the start. As Albert Modley finished his act the audience said his catch phrase for him.
Max Miller? Well he just had walk on stage wearing brightly coloured silk plus fours with an embroidered pattern and a matching jacket, co-respondent shoes and a pork pie hat. Then he would look at the women in the audience and say, ‘So what if I am? So what if I am lady?’ ‘So what if I am?’ He wasn’t, but he had put that thought in their minds, he knew how to make people laugh. Short sentences, timing, rhythm, eye contact, double meanings, make it personal and talk to each member of the audience as if they were only one in the theatre. Or the only one listening to the radio. So I was hooked on stand-ups very early on.
And so it went on with stand up until Billy Connolly turned up. The Big Yin. He didn’t tell jokes. He told stories about his life as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards. Observational comedy. He swore. He swore a lot. Like working men do. And he made people cry with laughter. That was the important thing. He made them laugh. He took them out of their selves and sent them home happy. That’s the point of comedy, it’s a social service. It’s therapeutic. Don’t tell the coalition; they will tax it. On Parkinson he told the story about the guy who lived in a Glasgow tenement block and killed his wife. Then he buried her in the garden. But left her backside exposed, so he had somewhere to park his bike. He did it with devilish enthusiasm, broke all the rules and in that single moment made himself into a huge star. Today on prime time TV that wouldn’t be acceptable. Funny? I think so. But you may not agree. Not politically correct? Yes, you’re right, in these post industrial days. But the great comics always push the boundaries back, regardless of the rules. Today I like Frankie Boyle, Rich Hall and Omid Djalili to name a few. But I’ll leave you with the great Max Miller.
‘I took a short cut home one night across this bridge. Coming across from the other side was this woman. She was a big woman, lady. Really big. I moved to the right, she moved to the right. I moved to the left. She moved to left. I didn’t know what to do.
….. … .……, or …. ……. ….’
I can’t tell you that one. It got Max banned from the BBC for life. Now’s there’s a funny thing! There’ll never be another!
Best Film Ever Made
The other day I turned on the TV and Blade Runner was on. The amazing 1982 movie with Harrison Ford and Sean Young, and an incredible Rutger Hauer. Is this the best film ever made? It’s certainly one of them, maybe it’s the best sci-fi movie ever made, or best action film? I’m not sure how to find out.
My favourite film is down to a choice of two – it’s either Jesus of Montreal, or I’m a Cyborg (but that’s ok) and to me these are the two best films ever made. Or they’re my favourites, anyway. Or, no, maybe I was right. To me, these are the two best films ever made.
Art depends on who you are and when you come to it.
I was me, and at just the moment in time when I watched Jesus of Montreal, or I’m a Cyborg, I needed what they had. It’s possible at some point in my life I have really needed what Citizen Kane has, or even Rocky III, but I just wasn’t watching them at the right time. It has to be the right film, the right person watching, and the right time for them, and it can be the best film ever made.
Art depends on who you are and when you come to it.
My favourite books, are they the best books ever written? They would include The Wizard of Earthsea series, Bill the Galactic Hero, The Master and Margarita, Colleen McCullough’s Rome series, and something called Q by ’Luther Blisset’. although these books are all wonderfully brilliant books, are they a set of the best ever written? To me they are. I read them at the right time when I could escape into their worlds and happily stay forever.
You could go around telling other people about your favourite books of course, but would it be the right time for them?
If you’re writing, you are probably not writing the best book ever written. You’re probably not that good. Your book might be really good, or average, or maybe even in need of a good re-write, but it’s not likely to be the best book ever, is it? Only, perhaps it is. If the right reader picks it up at the right time – to them it could be. It might be one person’s best book, it might be many, it could even just be yours. But remember when you’re writing, you could be, in a very real sense, writing the best book ever written, for someone.
Falling on Deaf Ears?
Juliet England on life in Reading Writers with a hearing loss.
An email came into the group, once, from someone whose hearing was a bit ropey, wanting to know how he would cope as a member of Reading Writers, were he to join. The then secretary of the merry band of wordsmiths that is our group forwarded it to me, wondering if I, with my bilateral moderate-severe hearing loss, could offer any advice.
This posed a more than usually troublesome conundrum. After all, it was not something I had previously given much thought – it would never have occurred to me not to join a writing group because of a trivial matter like my pesky cloth ears. And I am certainly neither deserving of nor in receipt of any special treatment because of it. To have my work judged in any way differently as a result would, of course, be nonsensical and, I think, almost unbearably patronising.
That’s not to say I don’t get some concessions. I get to sit pretty much where I choose – most people fall over themselves to help (often almost literally) offering to move before I’ve said a word. Where possible, I read pieces of text rather than hearing them, and ask people to run me off an extra copy of anything they are reading out.
One friend in the group heroically and diligently notes down spoken critiques to be sure I’ve caught everything when it’s my turn to have my work discussed.
And I will admit to sometimes playing to the gallery – I have form when it comes to asking for a repeat when something nice has been said about a piece I’ve written (on the grounds that I “haven’t heard”); or saying (innocent face) “Oh, you should have said,” when a point has already been patiently repeated seven times.
Equally, there are times when, with up to 15 people sitting round a long table, I do miss things, and retreat into my own little world, but even that seems pleasant rather than isolating.
It struck me a couple of years ago that the difficulties should be drawn upon in my writing – after all, my experiences have given me unique access to a world about which many people have only the shakiest of grasps.
There was the boss who said I “shouldn’t work in communications” because of not being able to hear well; the often hilarious misunderstandings (when I was a student a friend said something about having to take her anti-biotics, which I heard as having to call her Auntie Beatrix, after which “Auntie Bea” became a mythical figure who just wouldn’t go away), and the casual contempt of cold callers who put the phone down just because you’ve said, for the hundredth time “Sorry?” (Hey, being deaf has its upsides. Even so, I always feel mildly put out, surely I’m the one who’s allowed to hang up in frustration, while they’re supposed to hang on until the bitter end?)
So there is a rich vein of material to be mined, albeit with caution. I know one writer (a proper one, published and everything) who is profoundly deaf and is constantly trying (and sadly not always successfully) to stop journalists endlessly labelling her as a “deaf writer”. When I write about her for Hearing Times, I take pains to describe her as an “American writer, who is profoundly deaf” – a subtle yet important distinction.
Like her, I hope never to be limited or defined by the simple fact of having less than perfect hearing.
End of a Virgin
So how was it for you the first time? Do you remember? No not that, the really important one – the first time you saw your name in print. And not in the Magistrates Court Shame page of the local newspaper. This is now you, The Writer. However admiring your family or friends – I could write a novel if I had time – the big difference is that you have.
And then the wait for Recognition.
Of course, you can get round the waiting game of critical editors slashing through slush piles with green pens by Self Publishing. This takes courage. It means laying yourself open, baring your breasts and giving free food and alcohol at launch parties to people for the price of a paperback. The breasts are okay but the alcohol hurts – just do the sums. But it’s a good induction to the real world of marketing your book. And not just self published ones either … Proper authors have to do it too unless they’re very well known, with beautiful teeth. It’s your own decision to publish. And pay for it. No-one has chosen you, and said, ‘we like your writing so much we. want to publish you.’
But that was what happened to me ‘that first time’, when Writers Abroad accepted my contribution for their first Anthology in 2010. No payment , but who cares? Euphoria has kicked in. Writers Abroad is an online community for expat writers. They don’t have the luxury of tapping into the brilliant seams of local support that we enjoy. But what they do have is a connection with writers all over the world.
Shepherded by Jo Lamb (sorry Jo!) and her editorial team, they followed its success with Foreign Flavours, Foreign Encounters and now Foreign and Faraway published 2013 – All this creative talent and hard work has gone to good use.
All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Books Aid International. This charity increases access to books and supports literacy, education and development in sub-Saharan Africa. Fifty percent of primary school children are learning in classrooms where there isn’t a single book.
Foreign and Faraway explores the relationship between people and the landscapes and settings they live in. My own contribution The Beautiful Tent was a memory of an unforgettable night in Jordan when I’d rejected our trusty and Beautiful Tent for the doubtful pleasures of a desert hotel:
‘There was no pretence of it being a normal hotel, as he followed us from room to room with a Flit Gun. Small black flying insects dropped like confetti onto the beds. He smiled happily. ‘All OK now?’ We slept with our mouths closed.
Far Flung and Foreign is available at a price of £8.99 : Foreign and Faraway- Amazon.com, and Foreign and Faraway- Amazon.co.uk
It’s planned to have it uploaded to Lulu soonish, and the ebook will be available in Spring 2014.
To find out more and for a complete list of contributors and authors, please go to the Writers Abroad website, www.writersabroad.com
For more about Book Aid International, see www.bookaid.org
Research: what to put in, what to leave out?
Once upon a time, I read a worldwide best seller. I won’t name it, but it has been made into a film and yes, that film stars many beautiful people. In the book there is a long description of a certain artistic process and, as I was reading it, I was wondering how this description was moving the story on, what it was telling me about the person concerned, you know their character arc, the journey they were on? I came to the conclusion that however well researched it was and however well the scene was written, it didn’t do much for either of these things.
So, when I was writing ‘The Perfect Affair’ which is due for publication by Quercus in March 2014, I was conscious of the need to be careful with the research I had done to avoid this pitfall. Some of the story is set between 1959 and 1966 and to prepare for this I scoured the internet for photographs of the clothes people would wear, the cars they’d drive, what the headlines were at the time, what films were showing at the cinema, what books were being published, what was on TV, etc., etc. I also read extensively: Muriel Spark, ‘Nella Last in the 1950s’ and pored over Robert Opie’s Scrapbooks.
However, when it came down to it the contemporary references in the novel are fleeting and insubstantial; the price of a joint of lamb, the make of a car, references to A roads instead of motorways, the fact that people smoked in public places and wore hats, paper was in still in short supply following rationing and such like.
And this raised an interesting question for me. Namely, how much do we authors rely on what the reader already knows when we write? Do we just point a delicate finger at the pictures they already have in their heads, their own experiences of the heart and of life? Or are we puppet masters steering our readers until they are looking at what we want them to see, thinking what we want them to think?
Of course, there is no correct answer to this but I believe it’s an interesting question to think about when we’re writing and reading and what is even more interesting is that the section in the novel mentioned above was cut to the briefest of scenes in the movie! So what does that tell you?!
The Reading Writers Autumn Competition
‘How about writing something for the blog?’ he (who shall remain anonymous) said over the phone, ‘About 300 words will do.’ ‘You trying to up the age profile of Reading Writers,’ I replied, playing for the sympathy vote, or at least some age concern. He wasn’t having any of it. ‘You came third in the competition yesterday. Write about competitions,’ he said. ‘You must be joking.’ I protested. ‘Just do it, you old git,’ he spat out, with a venom that felt like a close encounter with an adder, ‘we need something to liven up the page after that erudite book review last month.’ ‘That review was written by another “old git”, I reminded him. ‘Whatever,’ he said, and rang off. Cheeky young … . OK, you asked for it, sunshine. One of the highlights of the Reading Writers year, well two if I’m being pedantic, are the Spring and Autumn writing competitions. The sense of excitement as the committee announces the topic is … how can I put it, gimme a metaphor; a simile will do. You can imagine, can’t you? It is only exceeded by that immediately preceding the announcement of the winners – tension, anticipation, that buttock clenching ‘will it be me’ moment. And finally, the warmth and generosity of the congratulations to the winners epitomise the spirit of the group. OK, I’ve worked emotion into this blog, an essential ingredient for writers my textbook says. Smell? Hmmm … well my dinner is wafting in from the kitchen. Will that do? I’ll be back in a minute. Alright, I’m supposed to be writing about competitions, I know. This year’s topics, chosen by our diligent and sadistic committee, were earth and travel. The latter was, I suspect, inspired by Julia’s talk on travel writing following her brilliant publication as winner of the Daily Telegraph travel writing competition for March. As an innovation this year we asked neighbouring groups from Slough Writers and Word Watchers (a Newbury group) to act as judges on a reciprocal basis. This means that several people are involved and the feedback therefore tends to be more comprehensive. The RW competitions seem to make people turn out their best. The quality of writing is consistently high. The full time writers tend to win, of course, and deservedly so. Their work sets a standard to the rest of us who, Tottenham Hotspur-like, are playing for the places. Claire won the last comp with a beautifully crafted and poetic love story. Julia’s ‘earth’ entry, a love story with a twist, was described by the judges as outstanding. It was. But don’t just take my word for it. Buy a copy of the group’s latest anthology of all the entries and other scribbling, due out in the Spring. Unmissable!
A Year On – What Arvon Taught Me
I joined Reading Writers in September 2010, not because I had lots of material ready to show other people, but because I wanted the discipline of writing instilled in me. A writing group is great for that and Reading Writers didn’t disappoint. However, every baby bird needs to try its wings and this writer wanted to become an author. You do this by publication, by finding your voice, by writing things that stretch your research skills and are out of your comfort zone. You should also try to find other writers that have never met you and know your writing style and have learnt to understand your imagination, and a writing course is a good bet. Arvon’s week-long course was a gift from my parents and it’s only now, about eighteen months later, that I can begin to appreciate the impact it’s had on my writing life. When you’re fitting the writing in around other commitments in your life, writing can easily be the one thing that disappears first. Cooking, cleaning, ensuring the job that pays the bills (and you like doing) doesn’t take over – we’ve all been there. It’s 9 o’clock, you’re shattered and the thought of forcing words out of your brain that represent something fictional – the TV is easier. For five days at Arvon, there was nothing but writing. I can’t stress this enough. You cook one meal for those days, jointly with the others. Otherwise it is lessons from two instructors, readings by invited authors, your own writing time. ALL YOURS. All for yourself. There are no cats demanding food, no washing, no cleaning, no other job. Blessedly, there is hardly a phone signal. Don’t expect a writing course to give you all the answers. Don’t expect it to give you editors and publishers on a plate that will fall over themselves wanting to print what you’ve written. Don’t expect that editing will be easier or that finding the time for writing will be simpler. But expect to come away with more ideas than you thought your brain capable of. Expect to find other people that share your love of words and can help you see what you need to work on. Expect to realise that you’ve had a holiday that meant more work than ever before, but it didn’t feel like work. And expect to learn that your writing is just as important as any of the other aspects of your life. Devote the time to it. Other people play sports or music or games. This is what you do. And that’s more than acceptable. p.s. I’ve now booked onto Arvon’s City Course in November, in Birmingham – I’m absolutely giddy with excitement to come back to into Arvon’s nurturing culture though I will miss Hurst and its lush surroundings.
Review of Annabel, by Kathleen Winter
Reviewed by Steve Partridge
— SPOILER ALERT —
Annabel was nominated by Julia Bohanna, winner of the 2013 Don Louth Writers’ award, as the book to read during our summer break. It was discussed and reviewed, under Julia’s stewardship, by members of Reading Writers in the library of The Great Expectations pub on the 7th August 2013. I liked everything about Annabel, except the beginning and the end. The chunk in the middle was great, an engaging and fantastically well written story. The Prologue was fine in terms of defining the story in terms of the language it would use, and introducing the reader to a white caribou in a magical setting, as though it were a fabulous, and exceptional animal, like a unicorn. I have no problem with that. But I can’t believe a blind man, and his daughter, would take to the river, on a regular basis, in a canoe, when neither of them could swim. Surely small town common sense and conservatism would stop this happening? For me the opening drove the story past the point of improbability, but, it did, of course, capture my attention. And I was not crazy about the ending. I think Jacinta was ignored and appeared almost to be dropped from the conclusion after she started to climb out of her depression. I felt the ending had too much focus on Tredway and Thomasina, who became a substitute mother for Annabel. But, given the prologue and the opening chapters and the fact that Wayne, in Thomasina’ s eyes, had become a surrogate for Annabel I suppose that was understandable from the author’s perspective. But as a reader, it didn’t quite ring true for me. I felt Jacinta should have been involved in the ending more than she was. Although, it has to be said all of the other strands of the story were pulled together well and the ending was beautifully lyrical without being schmaltzy; even if, it was, somewhat abrupt. Annabel dealt with a subject I knew nothing about. Hermaphrodites. Apart from, that is, going to school with a guy called Philip Gosling, of whom there were many rumours, and who always volunteered for the female lead in the school play, and was never without a sick note when it came to games lessons. The fact the story hangs on one of life’s great exceptions doesn’t matter. We are told hermaphrodites appear approximately, once in every eighty six thousand births. Kathleen Winter deals with the subject sympathetically and manages the confusion in the child’s mind and body exceptionally well. And we can see the link with the metaphor of the white caribou. As an adult male, trying to backtrack, and imagine myself going through puberty as both a young man and a young woman simultaneously is mind blowing. Especially when self impregnation occurs in the fallopian tube. But the story is compelling and the reader always wants to turn the page. Annabel is a beautiful piece of lyrical prose, full of strong characters and a story line which is enhanced with some delightful metaphors. At times it reminded me of the small town gossipy jokiness, which can found in Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegon Days, and at other times it had the bleakness of the Shipping news by Annie Proulx. Thomasina Baike’s post cards from Europe also reminded me of the latter author, who wrote a novel called Postcards. But Kathleen Winter’s voice is unique and strong, and delivers the story at a good pace with a lovely rhythm. In the early chapters it seemed more like 1868, rather 1968 with shades of a Jack London novel lurking in the background. However, the tripartite conspiracy to hide the truth about Wayne’s sexuality was both believable and understandable and did elicit sympathy as the story kicked on into the 1970’s. Annabel/Wayne was, as all of the characters were, totally convincing and perfectly drawn, as were their relationship’s with each other. Many of the chapters read as free standing short stories, but the overall continuity of the novel was never lost. With some of them it was almost like a double chocolate hit. A stand alone short story and the continuation of the golden thread of the main narrative at the same time. A wonderful bonus. For me, the two best chapters, and there were many good chapters, were Lettuce Sandwich where the major metaphor of the bridge is introduced, and Prom Night where the uncomfortable relationship between Wayne and Gracie Watts is developed. And where Wayne has to watch Wally making out with “Mr Cool”. For a while I thought Gracie Watts was going to morph into a Janis Joplin like character, and eventually die, singing the blues, drinking whiskey and shooting up heroin. Fortunately, she became a paramedic. So I was saved that misery. Great read. Great voice. Really enjoyed it. Thank you Julia for choosing it. – Steve Partridge
Where do novels come from?
By Claire Dyer
I was brought up believing novels came from people like Edwin Reardon in Gissing’s New Grub Street. Therefore I embarked on my writing journey anticipating my future lay in a dusty garret where I’d look kind of shabby-chic – my hair tousled, my fingers ink-stained and papers strewn about me. This didn’t happen. Neither did the chaise longue, pink feather boa and twenty-five year old oiled hunk taking dictation, or even me in a bed propped up by pillows with a laptop, cup of tea and my pyjamas on.
Instead writing is about the everyday; it’s living and breathing my characters, word count and plot arcs and that occasional ecstatic sentence, it’s about grieving once the book is done and it’s about editing with a comb with the finest teeth in the world.
It’s also about where the stories come from in the first place. Take ‘The Moment’ for example. This started as a first chapter competition entry. I sat down one day thinking, ‘I know, I’ll write a stream of consciousness scene in the style of Virginia Woolf’ (yes, I have such pretensions!) and so I wrote about a man running across the concourse at Paddington station, him bumping into a girl dressed in a milk-maid’s costume giving out free yoghurts, her dropping the tray and him shouting ‘Oh!’. Then I saw a woman at the top of the escalators. As she heard the shout, she turned round and caught sight of a man she used to love standing under the departure boards. I wrote all this and then it was six months later and I’d finished the novel. The story had unwound like a ball of string and even though I can’t remember the details of each thread and curl of the process, I do remember I loved every minute of it. I was lucky I guess.
The same thing happened with ‘The Perfect Affair’. I pitched the idea to my agent in a sentence and, without being conscious of it at the time, in the back of my mind was a short-cut I’d taken one day to avoid the Three Tuns traffic lights in Reading. Instead of staying on the Wokingham Road and turning right into Wilderness Road, I turned early, drove up Belle Avenue and caught sight of a stained-glass window in a front door in one of the houses in the road. This image must have stayed with me because, once I’d starting typing the opening of the book (now Chapter 1, not the actual opening), there was the door, the sun shining through the stained glass and on either side of it were people who I knew I was going to grow to care about a great deal and whose stories I would want to tell. Again, I was lucky I guess.
I also guess that what I’m trying to say here is that stories can come from the smallest beginnings, so we mustn’t despair if we don’t get struck by a high-concept theme in the middle of the night or the middle of Sainsbury’s. From the smallest of acorns, oak trees can grow.
In my Gissing phase, I must also have thought that I wouldn’t mind what happened to the book when I’d finished it; it was the act of writing that mattered. It still does, but now I know more about both where novels come from and what happens to them once we type ‘The End’, but that’s a story for another day!
– Claire Dyer
Sec’s Note: Claire Dyer’s ‘The Moment’ was launched only last night at a snazzy event in the Hilton at Paddington Station. It’s available on Amazon and in all good book shops.
Why did I join Reading Writers?
by Josh Williams
I wanted to be a writer. But really what does that mean? I already wrote. I mainly put fingertips to keys and typed, writing short stories and the occasional poem and was endlessly and still am working on a novel. I even picked up a pen and paper sometimes. I looked on the internet and sent short stories off to competitions and magazines and never heard back. I sent them to a very small group of family and friends and they, when they said anything at all, said they were great! (Yeah! They are great, I knew it.) I already was a writer. Because I wrote. But I wrote small. For myself and a few others, and never with any feedback to improve my writing, and help it grow. Although now I know it’s not just feedback that means you can grow as a writer, it’s inspiration, confidence, and the room to fail. Surprisingly, without knowing I needed these things, I found them at Reading Writers. Partly in the man who ran the group then, and is now deeply missed, Don Louth, partly in those authors already in the group who have made a thoughtful study of the craft of writing, but also in those writers who have given less thought to craft, but have a lot of time for emotion, see beauty in failure and are generous enough to share their writing and their thoughts. And how they feel when they read something. This was inspiring. Having the freedom to write anything and everything and make mistakes in safety was a key that unlocked a great many stories, sentences, words and deeply confusing grammatical errors. With each failure and each success confidence grows, and now, instead of occasional frantic bursts at novels that are never finished, I have written #1000wordsaday – every day, and have finished the first draft of a new novel this summer. I’m about to start on the re-draft and, if I use all the knowledge I’ve gained from the other writers in our group, I’ll have it with literary agents in the new year. Seriously, I totally will – follow my progress on twitter @readingwriters – and I’ll let you know how I’m getting on. If I fail, I’ll let you know, and grow in confidence because I was allowed to fail. Why not join me in 1000 words a day? Jx – Josh Williams