the Guardian

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.


My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.


The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).

Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

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.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

Writing the rules: the holy grail of creative writing

This week I’ve been pointed at a blogpost called How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day, and given a supplement from The Guardian last month called How to Write a Book in 30 Days (an extract from a book by Karen Wiesner). I haven’t finished reading either of them yet, but I know I will; I’m not the only writer scouring the blogs, books and articles of the world for some foolproof method to improve my output. There are even some who believe that if only they find The One, they’ll be unstoppable.

It may well be true that out there somewhere is a method which works wonders for you because of your lifestyle (not everyone can write at the same time each day, or even guarantee any writing time every day) or personality. One method might work for you if you’re determined to write so many words or so many stories in a year, but someone else might find it stifling and if they’re not in any great hurry there’s no point them trying to stick with it.

There’s usually something to learn from all these ways of working, even if it’s only that you’re happy as you are. Never be afraid to try new things, to change or adapt your methods, but remember there’s no right way to approach your writing. And if you hit upon a good way of doing it, write a blog post (or even a book) and pass it on. The rest of us will be here, eagerly awaiting the next idea that might make the difference for us.