writing

Success all round: new story and a litfest connection

I have a new story in a magazine, and some hot off the press litfest news. I can feel the excitement from here.

First of all, I have a long-ish short story in the latest issue of Romance Magazine. Yes, I said romance, though as this is me the heroine’s reawakened passions are for literature and her husband, in that order (though she does nearly get carried away by a holiday friendship). It’s set in the Lake District in the early 1980s and here’s a taster via wordcloud:

ReawakenedPassions

If you enjoyed any or all of The Little Book of Northern Women, you’ll probably like this.

The other news is that the writing group I belong to is going to be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe in October. I’ve seen some great stuff at the fringe over the last few years, all for free, so that’s going to be an exciting event to be involved in.

Phew! What with all that and the heat as well I need a bit of a lie down now. By which of course I mean I’m off to put the finishing touches to a couple of stories. Honest…

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.

Shaking up and looking back

Has it really been almost six years since I started this blog? This is not the first but it is the biggest overhaul I’ve done (new theme, new pages, new layout). My publications list is grouped differently, to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. I have pages to showcase each of my books (and wordclouds to summarise each story in The Little Book of Northern Women). There is a page for comics I’ve done as part of Ostragoth Publishing – you can even download the comics for free so if you ‘don’t do comics’ you can give them a go without wasting anything except a tiny chunk of your time. It’s like sharpening all my pencils when I should be writing, only a bit higher tech.

While I was rearranging though I started reading back through some old posts and reminding myself what I’ve been up to since 2008. Mainly writing stories it seems, or reading, sometimes reading about writing. Occasionally listening to music or having a good old rant about politics or class. Or education (usually in relation to class but also gender). If you’ve taken the cue from my first post and been out to spot facts along the way, you may have picked up that I’m from Yorkshire, I’m a socialist, I listen to a lot of rock and metal (including what now gets called hair metal and I probably used to call glam), I’m opinionated and I’m fond of history.

I’ve posted over 50 book reviews, apparently – you can read them all via the book review tag in the tag cloud. There’s fantasy, science fiction, short story collections, graphic novels, history. Works in translation, e-books and physical books, books set in Yorkshire. Books I want everyone to read, and books I didn’t even make it all the way through. That will continue – I’ve already written a couple more reviews that I haven’t posted yet.

There are definite themes on this blog. My lack of organisation, for instance, which gets a mention back in November 2008, progresses to the use of a calendar in 2011, and yet we’re firmly back in disorganised territory by May this year (despite the pink diary I got for Christmas). Also accents, dialect and their rendering in print (usually in terms of someone having annoyed me. Maybe another theme is me getting annoyed about things). I’ve trumpeted my successes, bemoaned the odd failure (and the advent of the ConDem coalition) and indulged in bah-humbuggery each Christmas.

By far the most-viewed post has been the one I wrote in March 2011 about The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (Yorkshire, class, education and history all at the same time!), though sadly the one I wrote in response to a poor BBC programme about culture in The North in 1960 has been largely overlooked.

So, whether you’re a regular visitor or this is the first time you’ve stumbled into my literary domain, have a look around – there’s plenty to go at. Leave me a comment, let me know what you do or don’t like on the blog, or come and say hello on twitter.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

Heavy metal: music on the sidelines

It hasn’t been universally welcomed, but like it or not you’re unlikely to have escaped the fact that Metallica were the first metal band to headline Glastonbury, last weekend. I’m not what you’d call a Metallica fan (I do still listen to the black album, and it’s still good) and I also have mixed feelings about their headlining status, though not for the same reason as the widely-reported row about it, but I definitely couldn’t help knowing that a) Glastonbury was on last weekend and b) Metallica were headlining on Saturday night. Yet I had to go look up the Sonisphere dates when I was trying to tell OneMonkey about Bruce Dickinson’s flying intro (it’s this coming weekend, the weekend of the Tour de France wondering what’s hit it in West Yorkshire, since you ask).

Consider these screenshots:

Over 2 million search results for Glastonbury on the BBCOver 400 search results for Sonisphere on the BBC

Even allowing for some of those 2 million and odd hits not actually being about the festival, doesn’t it tell you something that there’s only a few hundred about Sonisphere? (I would have used Donington as a comparator, but since it has the unhelpful name of Download these days, I didn’t bother)

There’s a concept on the BBC (for those of you reading this from outside Britain) called ‘undue prominence‘, which basically means the BBC can’t be seen to be promoting something, whether it’s a brand of soap powder or a particular band. Given the continual pushing of Glastonbury on 6Music for days (weeks? months? ‘tickets now available’, this singer rumoured, this band confirmed) leading up to the festival, and the re-playing of parts of Glastonbury sets for a couple of weeks afterwards, the BBC news website headlines about it, and indeed the BBC Glastonbury website, I have to wonder how far they’d have to go to fall foul of the guidelines. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there was only one music festival on at this time of year, and hadn’t heard that Download was 2 weekends before Glastonbury, or Sonisphere (as we now know) the weekend after.

Bruce Dickinson 2008

Scream for me Glastonbury? Maybe not…

So, is it a breakthrough that Metallica were one of the Glastonbury headline acts this year? Er, no. Surely we want greater diversity of music reporting, not a nod to ‘minority tastes’ on the all-but-state-sponsored festival du jour. Bruce Dickinson has been quoted as saying Iron Maiden wouldn’t play Glastonbury, and I would hope they’d stick to this if they ever were asked. There was a time when Radio 1 (in the days before 6Music) acknowledged that rock and metal existed and was popular; I listened to the whole of Donington 92 live, mainly because we always had Radio 1 on in our house (we even listened in the car as we embarked on a family holiday, the climax of Maiden’s set was a bit crackly as we ate fish and chips in a lay-by). The following morning I bought a second-hand tape of The Number of the Beast and the rest is history. How does the music-loving teenager come across any genre outside the mainstream these days? I end up listening to 6Music as the least worst option on my clock-radio (can’t get Planet Rock outside the kitchen for some reason) and I like Shaun Keaveny but the music choice leaves a lot to be desired.

We could of course learn to have properly diverse festivals. Germany apparently managed it with Rock am Ring at the start of June, where Maximo Park were on the same bill as Metallica, and a good mix of the Glastonbury, Download and Sonisphere line-ups seem to have coped with playing on the same day as each other, in the same venue. Until that happens, it would be nice if the mainstream media noticed that live music events do happen outside Somerset, even in June.

(Though not if they report them like this review in the Guardian from 1999 which has been bugging me for nearly 15 years. Maiden didn’t even play Moonchild  – the song he quotes the lyrics from – that night. I was there. And I can point to a set-list that says they didn’t, too. Either send someone with an affinity for the music on offer, or at least someone who’ll pay attention)

Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

Alex Lomax is the only private detective on Mars, scraping a living under the protective dome of New Klondike. Like all the best fictional private detectives he’s got a nice line in wisecracks, an eye for the ladies and a reputation that precedes him. New Klondike likewise is a typical frontier town full of fossil-hunters determined to strike it rich, people on the run, corrupt cops. And a writer in residence.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Robert J Sawyer before this novel, or maybe the name just hadn’t sunk in – it seems he’s won a whole mantelpiece full of awards over the last few years – but I’ll be looking out for more of his work. Red Planet Blues was an assured romp through a twisty plot full of double-crossing, kidnap, murder and mistaken identity. It all starts with what seems like a simple missing person case, but then Lomax starts to uncover things that might be best left undisturbed. Like the truth about what happened to the men who first found fossils on Mars and started the fortune-hunting rush. All this in low gravity, with the added complication of essentially immortal transfers (people rich enough to upload their mind into custom-built and largely indestructible android bodies).

The novel is handled with wry humour, but it has its share of grit and science. If you like your Chandler and Hammett but aren’t averse to some future-set extra-terrestrial fiction, I would recommend reading Red Planet Blues.

#Bookaday, volume the third

I’ll make this the last outing for #bookaday and I’ll cherry-pick, in a vain attempt to avoid boredom. So, where were we..?

BOOKADAY_JuneAt the risk of sounding pretentious (I know, not like me at all) I can’t believe more people haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past. Lots of people have heard of Proust, they may even use the word Proustian in relation to sensation-triggered memories, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who admits to having made it past the first part (if you have, leave a comment and end my solitude). Maybe the fact that I read epic fantasy novels conditioned me for it, but I loved the total immersion and also the ability to (if I remember correctly) write a few thousand pages without actually naming your main character. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read twice (see number 29, below) and it’s left such vivid images in my mind that I can step into the setting of the novel at will. Marvellous stuff.

If I say I’m moving on to number 19 now, I guess regulars will groan, and chorus The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. It might get overtaken by The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel at some point, but I haven’t finished reading that yet. What can I say? I get fired up about inequality, education, working class opportunities and any mixture thereof.

I’ve got a lot of out of print books, that’s part of the fun of second-hand bookshops.

23 and 25 kind of go hand in hand. Any book we were made to read at school, I’m unlikely to have finished. I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd or a world war 2 book which may have been The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall. I vaguely remember asking friend T what happened in The Lord of the Flies so I suspect I didn’t get to the end of that one either. I probably finished Animal Farm because it was George Orwell, and I know I read The Hobbit but I’m pretty sure I’d already done so before it was flung at us in the classroom. As you might guess, 23 and 24 are diametrically opposed. Thankfully I was enthused about reading long before school started to try and spoil it, and my earliest memory isn’t early enough to capture it (though Spot the Dog will have been part of it, so a brief nod to his creator Eric Hill, who died recently).

Should have sold more copies? Clearly that’s The Little Book of Northern Women by JY Saville, a rewarding collection of short stories that’s not just for girls, and a snip at only 99p…

I’m not going to admit here which bookload of characters I’d want to be among (although I probably have done already, there’s a lot of posts on this blog now). Those who know me, in real life or through long readership, could probably have a good guess. Answers on a postcard (or a comment box, if you feel like it).

Which brings me to re-reading. A few years ago I explained why I rarely re-read books (I do re-read blog posts, and you can do the same here), so I’m not sure there are any books (except children’s books, books I’ve written, or books I’ve proof-read for other people) that I’ve read more than twice. Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every festive season (Dickens and I don’t get on, so I had a hard enough time getting through it the once). I know someone who rarely reads anything but Jane Austen and has to buy new copies as the old ones wear out. Honestly, my most-read book is almost certainly A Bear Called Paddington. If you’ve ever seen me in a situation where a hard stare is called for, that might explain a lot.

Part 2 of #Bookaday

Time for the second instalment of my responses to this:
BOOKADAY_June
I’d got as far as number 8 last time, so let me think of something film or TV related. Obviously there are masses of books on the shelves that have been made into films or TV series, or indeed vice versa (like some of the early Doctor Who novels). However, the one I’m going to pick is a boxed set of 3 paperbacks from the Michael Palin travel programmes: Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Full Circle. The paperbacks don’t have all the photos that the big coffee-table versions had, and I probably saw less than half the episodes on TV, but Michael Palin’s gentle enthusiasm for foreign parts forms the core of my (very much armchair-based) interest in far-flung places.

Which book reminds me of someone I love? Quicker to list the ones that don’t. Among the many given to me by friend T there’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which set me off on Tracy Chevalier. There are the ones that used to belong to my dad’s late uncle, unashamedly intellectual with a dreadful line in puns (much like my dad, in fact). The one I’m going with though is a book I’ve only got an electronic copy of, having first read Big Brother’s paperback many years ago: The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels. Inextricably bound up with Big Brother, his outlook and influence. For better or worse (make your own mind up), he’s a big reason I am who I am today.

Ah, the pull of secondhand bookshops. Even now I have to make a big effort to walk past an open charity shop, and I have great memories of exploring the ever-expanding labyrinth of Michael Moon’s cornucopia of books in Whitehaven as a child. The majority of my books, and the ones in the Library of Mum and Dad are second hand, many of them with irritatingly limpet-like price stickers from the now defunct Roblyns in Huddersfield, regular haunt of my dad in the late 80s. One wonderful day in the early 90s, friend T and I were taken round every bookshop in some small Pennine town by her dad and had a fab time unearthing treasures. We once had a family day out to the old station bookshop at Alnwick. Can you see why picking one gem might be tricky? How about William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, bought from a second hand bookshop at Pitlochry station moments before our train pulled in?

I’m not sure I always pretended to have read the books I was supposed to read at school, and outside of that the question doesn’t make sense so I’ll move on to laughter. Humour’s a tricky one to pull off, much harder to write than you might think (believe me, I’ve tried) so I have great respect for those authors who manage it consistently. Do they make me laugh though, really? Is it more of a smile to myself as I pass over the page? Strongest contenders could well be from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde or the broader realms of comic fantasy. I’ve read a lot of comic fantasy (which you might not expect if you came across me in one of my more serious moods), I’ve written a fair bit too and most of it’s not very good. Except All the Room in the World which made it into Bards and Sages Quarterly a few years ago.

Phew, this is getting long so 14 is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ’nuff said. Calvin’s dad from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons gets my vote for top fictional father, though I read the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice a while ago and Mr Bennet’s long-suffering wit reminded me of my dad and therefore deserves a mention.

Back to the books…

Fancy joining in with a title-based writing exercise?

It’s my turn for the first Friday of the month challenge at the Telegraph Short Story Club, which is now available here. We’re taking one of a handful of titles I’ve supplied and writing the beginning of a story (or a whole story, or a letter. We’re kind of easy-going like that) to see how many different genres and directions we collectively cover, or if some titles take us all down a similar route. So if you feel like joining in, do come over and play. If you want to do the exercise without joining the club, here are the titles:

  • Sydney by Nightfall
  • Edith and Maud
  • The Crumbs From Your Table
  • Losing a Tenner and Finding Bob
  • Denton After Dark
  • 23 Park Avenue
  • Golden Silence
  • The King’s Head

Jumping on the #Bookaday bandwagon

The last few days, I’ve kept seeing people on Twitter flash up this picture:

BOOKADAY_JuneSince it doesn’t seem to be trying to sell me anything I figured I may as well join in, and some of the categories beg a bit of discussion so I’ll do it here where I can waffle more than 140 characters allows.

Favourite book from childhood ties in nicely with the YouGov poll of favourite children’s books from the other day, which I would have blogged about earlier in the week if I’d had time. Maybe another day. Childhood covers a long period though, from Meg and Mog to Biggles Flies Again, via Little Women and The School at the Chalet (as with the poll of favourites, most of my reading material seems to have been from long before I was born). My favourite book aged 4 would be quite different from my favourite aged 11, and the ones I look back on with fondness now may not have been my favourites at the time. I still love (and quote regularly) both Winnie the Pooh and Paddington, but I’m going to choose a book called Dragon in Danger, by Rosemary Manning, which was from a series about a little girl who befriends an old (and as I recall, most polite) dragon. I suspect it had quite a profound effect on my later reading habits. (As an aside, I just searched for the author’s surname online as I could only get as far as Rosemary unaided, then realised if I’d wheeled my desk chair 3 feet to the right I could have stuck my head out of the study to read the spine of the book on one of the hall bookcases. Modern life, eh?)

The one that’s springing to mind as a bargain is Poverty: A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree, I can’t even remember how much it was but certainly less than half an hour’s pay at the shop I worked at around that time. Not the first (1901) edition, I think it’s from 1909 but I was delighted with it then and I’m happy to own it now. It had a blue cover I think, too (that one’s in the bookcase on the other leg of the L-shaped hall. It would require getting up and walking).

Who’s my favourite author today? That’s the question I’d need to answer before I could pick my least favourite book by them. I read reviews, I take notice of other people I know who like the author, so I tend not to bother with the books I don’t think I’ll take to, hence even my least favourite is one I’ll probably have enjoyed. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett’s a contender, though.

Most books in the world don’t belong to me. The library book I’m halfway through (Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer) for instance. There are some books in the house that were bought for OneMonkey, and some I’ve borrowed from my dad, but since both fall under the ‘what’s yours is mine’ heading, I don’t think that counts.

Now number 6 really perplexed me: The book you always give as a gift. As though there are books that simply everyone will enjoy. I can’t think of any book that I’ve bought more than one person as a gift except possibly OneMonkey and The Nephew, and even then it might have been my sister that bought it for OneMonkey. Isn’t part of the joy of giving and receiving books the personalisation behind it? I read this synopsis and thought of you. Or I read this book and knew you’d enjoy it so I’m passing it on. Maybe there are lots of people out there with whole swathes of friends and family with similar tastes in literature. Though if that’s the case, why are they not sharing?

I’ll get ahead a couple of days by being equally perplexed at number 7 (why wouldn’t I know the contents of my bookshelves intimately? Good grief!), and confessing that there is one Terry Pratchett novel that got overlooked when OneMonkey and I amalgamated our books many years ago and removed the duplicates. Somehow we’ve never quite got round to ditching that second copy of Witches Abroad.

So there you go, a ‘fascinating’ (maybe if you squint) romp through a week and a bit of book-related wittering. I would love to know anyone else’s responses, to all or a selected few of the prompts themselves, or indeed to my answers. But don’t let it distract you from your reading time.

Notebooks and writers

An article on the BBC news website caught my eye last week, Writers’ notebooks – a junkyard of the mind. Naturally, being a curious writing type I had a look and though I’m not clear what prompted the article, it was on the whole an entertaining potter about the pages of one chap’s notebooks. He made them look and sound so exciting, full of curious facts, enigmatic diagrams and sketches, research on things that sound like they might be useful someday, revisited and built up in layers. My notebooks are really not like that.

Diagram of Centrified City

Aside from this diagram of Centrified City (from the notes for the novel I finished the first draft of in January), my notebooks are pretty much full of writing. Logical, fill a whole page top to bottom, linear prose. I feel guilty if I leave the last few lines blank to start something on a fresh page. If I want to revisit something I write a suitable heading (‘That crime story with the cat, cont. from 3rd May’ – at least it’s all in chronological order) and keep going. I occasionally repeat myself or contradict myself but both of those are illuminating in their own way.

I do write lists. Lists of prompts I can use for exercises. Lists of stories I need to tweak or submit. Lists of objects a character owns. I also write ideas for blog posts, character names, descriptions of things I’ve seen, snippets of dialogue I’ve overheard. Whole stories, sometimes. Then if it’s not something I can type up quickly I take photos of the pages so at least I’ve got a back-up. You never know when the cat will jump onto the desk quicker than you can grab the full mug.

So why is any of this interesting? Is it interesting (other than to me)? Well, the FutureLearn creative writing course I’m in the middle of has been banging on about notebooks too. Keep one, write in it every day, develop ideas there. Jot down every little thing that’s of interest: words you like the sound of, descriptions of people and places, half-baked ideas. Stuff it with postcards and pictures ripped from magazines (that’ll be why they have those little pouches in the back of some notebooks I suppose), of places you want to write about or people who look like your main characters.

pile of hardback notebooksWriters’ notebooks sound like grand things. I imagine them (real writers) swanning into a fancy cafe, probably in Paris, a Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen clutched in one hand. They sit there observing, making notes and sketches, perhaps pressing flowers from the table decoration between their expensive pages, tucking scraps of menu into the back. Whereas I (an imaginary writer?) scribble in biro, cramped on a commuter train. None of my notebooks have cost more than £3, and some of them (unused desk diaries for instance) are other people’s cast-offs and hence free. I feel as though in some undefined way I’m missing out, then I remember what it is that makes a notebook into a writer’s notebook: it has writing in, put there by someone who habitually writes.

I can return to my scribbling content, though with a mild lingering envy of research-filled diagrams and pressed flowers.

Diary of a disorganised writer

Tuesday morning: Remember there’s an interesting submission deadline on Friday. 1000 words doesn’t sound too daunting, not too late to start. Use the commute to write copious notes on proposed story.

Tuesday evening: Write 350 words of story, not bad. Retire for the night feeling positive.

Wednesday evening: Have crisis of confidence, then get sidetracked by discovering some particularly useful parish registers for family history have been scanned in and are available for free online. Drifting off to sleep, remember Wednesdays are supposed to be blog days.

Thursday evening: Abandon the 1000-word story. It’s too near the deadline and anyway it wasn’t going anywhere. Back to parish registers.

Friday: Final week of two MOOCs to catch up on. No time for writing.

Saturday evening: Check writing diary and notice the deadline was Sunday not Friday. Re-read the 350 words, decide it has potential. Strip away 50 words, bang out 900 more, prune a further 200. Fall into bed, smug but exhausted. Realise it still needs a title.

Sunday morning: Spend two hours thinking up titles. Go with the one that first suggested itself as sleep beckoned last night. Sit back with a cup of tea, feeling proud.

Sunday afternoon: Remember to submit story. Write delayed blog post. Make mental note to keep better track of deadlines in future. Find half-written blog post from Monday.

Rider at the Gate by CJ Cherryh

As a one-sentence over-simplification you could describe Rider at the Gate as a kind of dark fantasy Western on a frontier planet with three-toed telepathic horses. That description will probably tell you whether or not you might be interested in the story, but it doesn’t do the novel justice. It’s about loyalty and secrets, family, hardship, and the difficult lesson that people can be complicated creatures with tangled motives.

Danny Fisher is an awkward teenager, town-born but lately chosen as a Rider by the young nighthorse whose self-image is best translated as Cloud. He’s all set to spend the winter in the Rider camp adjacent to his home town, where he can visit his God-fearing (and hence Rider-hating) family regularly for an uncomfortable shared meal, but it won’t necessarily be that straightforward. Reports arrive of a horse gone rogue; rogue horses can project images further and stronger than the others, catching everyone unawares and if they’re not careful, driving them to insanity or death. Danny gets caught up in a situation he isn’t prepared for, but the trail on the edge of winter isn’t the most forgiving place for a junior to make elementary mistakes.

I’ve read a few CJ Cherryh novels now, and been consistently impressed. Rider at the Gate was an easy read, laced with dry humour and well-drawn characters, including the nighthorses who each had unique personalities. The world was vividly conjured, from the snow-covered mountains of the High Wild to the poisoned industrial landscape further down, and the truck convoys the Riders are paid to protect. With the scattering of technology (diesel-powered trucks, phone lines strung alongside mountain passes) this is a bit grubbier and more down to earth than a lot of the more rose-tinted fantasy novels you might expect to involve horses, mountains and a quest, but I would say it’s more likely to appeal to the fantasy-reading end of the SF spectrum than the hard sci-fi crowd. There is an equally-enjoyable sequel called Cloud’s Rider.

Easter holidays and productivity

I’ve almost caught up on the insane amount of things I’ve been trying to fit into the last few weeks, now my Easter holidays are done. For those still relaxing, here’s a couple of things for you to check out.

My MOOC participation moves on to creative writing soon, with an Open University course via FutureLearn (begins April 28th), which you can look into here. Free, so probably worth a go – almost any course in an area you’re interested in will have something new for you to learn, some new connection to make, or at least will remind you of stuff you’d forgotten. In the meantime, the OU has a few free creative writing resources available here.

I came across an online vocab test recently which was quite fun and apparently feeds into someone’s research too. Reassuringly it claims I’m at the higher end of my age group, as you’d hope from someone who reads as much as I do and has writing pretensions. Have a go, and learn new words by looking up all the ones it lists that you don’t recognise. Then (if you have a decent enough memory) do the test again next week, hope enough of the list is repeated (OneMonkey’s list wasn’t the same as mine but there was a lot of overlap) and feel smug.

Right, I have tea to drink, a jam doughnut to eat and lectures on American Capitalism to listen to. Oh the hedonism.

Competitive writing – why bother?

At the start of the year I try and get organised; regular readers may remember I have a new (pink!) diary to note deadlines in. There’s a flurry of activity in January, some years it lasts well into February but by March I’m slacking off and then I wonder why I’m bothering anyway.

I’ve entered quite a few writing competitions over the years, and other than coming second in the Morpheus Tales flash fiction competition in 2009  I haven’t had any success with them. I keep coming back to competitions, but I can’t help wondering why, and I find myself leaning towards the idea that it might be the same reason people play the lottery. Yes I’m extremely unlikely to win the Bridport Prize, but wouldn’t it be marvellous if I did.

Quite often there are only a handful of stories mentioned (shortlist, or placed plus highly commended) and only the winner is published, but if the competition is respected enough it’s a good thing to be able to point to on your writing CV. If the prizes have a cash element it’s usually the top three stories only. Entering a competition isn’t that likely to get your writing in front of an audience, or swell your bank balance.

There is something to be said for the discipline of a deadline, however. A magazine, even if it has regular closed periods, will still be there next week or next month when you might have more time. Competitions, in general, are not. This might explain why I intend to enter many more than I actually do, but even so entering competitions probably does coax more work out of me than the vague idea of a magazine submission.

At this point, I should probably grab the pink diary and head over to http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/submission-calls/ to write down some more deadlines.

What’s the collective noun for writers?

I joined a writing group yesterday. Not a comfort-of-your-own-home, mug of tea in one hand, cat on your knee kind of online group like the Telegraph Short Story Club (which regular visitors will know I’ve been a part of for a couple of years) but an actual group of people in a room, talking. Not my forte (who’d have thought that of someone with degrees in maths and physics?), but thankfully the gathering was friendly and varied. There was an interesting mix of poetry, flash fiction, short story, novella, novel and non-fiction works in progress, for children and adults, by those with agents, the published, the self-published, and enthusiastic hobbyists. Some compulsive and prolific, others waiting for that boot up the backside to get going. The aim is to meet monthly and prove to each other we’ve actually written something in the meantime.

I’ll have to stop there because OneMonkey has just declared that the world’s a better place for the existence of Twisted Sister and I need to check if he’s sickening for something…

Spring and surroundings

Spring’s officially here, though we’ve had a heavier frost this week than we had all winter. Naturally, I’m reading a novel set in mountain country when the first of the winter snows are sweeping in and causing problems, but then I have a habit of being contrary.

There has been the odd burst of sunshine lately, plenty of flowers are appearing (mainly purple, in my garden) and the longer days mean it’s not already dark or dropping dark when I get home. It struck me as a good time to have a fresh look at things, while everywhere’s refreshing itself and throwing off the winter blankets.

Tomorrow on the way to work, or while you’re peering bleary-eyed from the kitchen window waiting for the first pot of tea of the day, take a good look at your surroundings. Maybe the winter storms have opened up the view by half a tree, or you’d forgotten there were daffodils on the roundabout. Maybe it’ll make you smile, or bring back memories. Maybe it’ll only remind you of some crucial maintenance you’d been putting off. Hopefully though, it’ll put a spring in your step.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.