writing

Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

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National Flash Fiction Day recommendations

It’s National Flash Fiction Day again, and there’s enough short fiction on the go today to keep you going for weeks, even though each one is bite-sized. There’s my Badge of Honour, of course, and fellow Ilkley Writer Emily Devane’s unsettling Laundry, as well as a host of others by names that will be familiar if you’re into your short short fiction (Helen Rye, Anita Goveas, Stephanie Hutton…).

There are also many stories by debut flash writers, and people who I at least haven’t come across before. In my first half-hour of reading on the day I particularly enjoyed Emulsion by Liz Wride and In the Field by Simon Lee-Price.

They’re releasing writing prompts throughout the day so you can join the fun, and you can read the whole FlashFlood at http://flashfloodjournal.blogspot.com/

Writing on Air Festival 2019

The beauty of radio in the internet age is the listen-again function, which means that when a local station’s annual celebration of writing blossoms into a four-day extravaganza featuring hosts of established and emerging, amateur and professional writers from across the region, you don’t have to try and take it all in at once.

Last month was my fourth year of being part of the Writing on Air festival from East Leeds FM (Chapel FM as it’s sometimes known, it being based in a converted chapel complete with organ and stained glass) and it continues to be a pleasure. Because it’s a community arts venue there’s some great encouragement for young writers in the area, and I particularly enjoyed Scattering Sounds, which collected some writing from the Associate Writers group. Throughout the festival there were interviews, discussions, readings; poetry, prose, drama; the topical, the evergreen; gravity and humour.

You can see some of the bustle of the festival (including Keely and Karen rehearsing) via the Chapel’s photo collection on Instagram, and all the programmes from this year’s festival are available to listen to online on the ELFM player (last year’s festival is still available too, and many of the participants appear regularly on ELFM throughout the year).

This year I featured in The Food of Love with Rosalind Fairclough and Emily Devane, where Emily and I read three of our stories each, Roz read three of her poems, and throughout it all we had marvellous, specially-arranged accompaniment on cello (Keely Hodgson) and violin (Karen Vaughan). You can listen to us, or you can even watch the video we didn’t realise was being recorded (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to access it).

(And for those few who still haven’t heard the radio drama Roz and I wrote for last year’s festival, here’s a direct link to listen to it now).

Under-represented writers finding their way

I’ve been working through the new Route-map for under-represented writers from Carmen Marcus this week (if you recall, it’s over on her blog that I wrote about embracing my accent). It’s even harder than I thought it might be, for some of the reasons she mentions in her explanations.

I want never gets. That was a common phrase in our house, too. And ‘making do’ is only to be expected when you’re being brought up by your Nana, who learnt to manage her own household in the 1940s. I’m still frequently to be heard saying There’s nowt wrong with this one, which is how come I’ve been writing at a laptop with a periodically blue-tinged screen for nearly 2 years, that often requires careful jiggling to be able to read it. This mindset, as Carmen notes, leads to wants being automatically labelled as indulgence. So imagine how hard it is to list your wants and needs as a writer (ssh, ordinary people aren’t writers…).

I used to believe my dad that you can’t be working class if you’ve been to university, which meant me and him were different from the rest of the family. In a way, we are – we’re the quiet, shy, bookish ones (though Big Brother manages that well enough without a degree) – but mostly we’re pretty much the same. It’s only by acknowledging the influence of your background that you can work to overcome it. Similarly it’s only by acknowledging the deepest needs (confidence, the need to feel like you’re not being laughed at by those in the know) that you can figure out where to head next with your writing career. It’s no good going to some swanky agent event if you spend the whole time in the toilet because you overheard someone comment on your pairing brown shoes with a dark suit and now you can’t face anyone. (Tip: never wear a suit to anywhere that matters, if you don’t normally wear suits. Dress to your own rules and no-one can judge if you’re doing it ‘right’ except you.)

So what have I been delving into and enlightening myself with, using Carmen’s breadcrumb trail? Well, starting with a list of what you’ve done so far is an excellent boost for the journey ahead. We should all do this periodically to remind ourselves, I think. Importantly this was about activity, not achievement, so while I didn’t count up yesterday how many acceptances I had in 2018, I did note with surprise that I’d made 49 submissions. In one of the worst years of my life, when it felt like I was barely functioning at times, I count that as a major success. I also noted that things that had taken me well out of my comfort zone (like writing a radio drama with a friend then performing it on live radio) were the things I was most proud of and had turned out brilliantly. Maybe if it feels like it’s going to be difficult I put more preparation in? Or maybe my strengths lie in places I don’t generally acknowledge. Mentoring would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and every time I’ve thought about it the little voice in my head goes What have you possibly got to offer? but maybe now is the time to give it a go.

I tried not to agonise over my top 5 inspirational writers. Write down the first five that float to the top of your mind, I thought. Number one? Douglas Adams, naturally. And Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Trollope and, interestingly, Stuart Maconie. I listed King, Pratchett and Adams as my favourite authors on my UCAS form in 1995 (I remember a bizarre conversation with – as I recall – Tom McLeish about the science of the Discworld, when I visited Leeds University), and Trollope’s been one of my favourites for at least the last 15 years. But what on earth do they have in common? I decided it was probably language that didn’t feel writerly (harder to spot with Trollope, but if you make allowances for the era he’s writing in…). They’re easy to read, chatty for the most part, implicitly or explicitly narrating a tale directly to you, the reader, with asides and interesting facts. There’s room for passion, erudition, weirdness, but all so naturally and simply laid out. Whereas I waffle, and use too many parentheses, and rarely cut to the chase. I have a feeling there is much for me to learn here.

Then there’s the list of jobs, and what skills and experiences they gave you. There’s the one I won’t specify that taught me how to have a smoothly professional relationship with a close colleague you loathe in almost every respect. There’s being a research student for 2 years, that gave me a good grounding in living with anxiety and self-doubt (definitely useful as a writer). There’s a couple of them (particularly one shop) where I learnt to let the back-biting and petty jealousies wash over me – and even though I mainly spend my social media time in a lovely supportive corner of Twitter I get glimpses of that kind of thing now and then.

All that was before I even got as far as Step 2, which I’m struggling with as it’s the wants and needs bit. I have to articulate these things, commit them to paper (and those that know me well, know how I hate to ‘waste’ paper, so writing this list in a notebook took some doing. In fact I avoided all my nice writing notebooks and went to serviceable spiral-bound A4 left over from a project) and then potentially, scarily, share them.

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My serviceable, as yet blank, hierarchy of writing needs

So, having managed to write down my top 10 writing goals as the 10 writing goals I’m frightened of, believe aren’t for me or are beyond me (did I mention needing confidence?), I think I need to take a break and get some inspiration elsewhere. I’m going to start by re-reading other people’s writing experiences at No Writer Left Behind.

If you want Step 1 of Carmen’s route-map, you can find it at The Bookseller, who also had an interesting survey of working class people in the book trade this week. Step 2 is at Carmen’s blog, where Steps 3-5 will follow, I believe. And if you’re interested in all this kind of thing, you might want to listen to Monday’s Breaking The Class Ceiling on Radio 4, which includes another vocal working class writer, Natasha Carthew. (No, I don’t think classism should be a ‘thing’, for a start it’s impossible to define, but it sounds like an interesting programme). See you next month.

What is lost, and what comes of it

For reasons of trying to focus a (tentatively planned) short story collection I wondered recently what it is that drives my writing these days. What theme binds it all together? I mused over the possibilities: anger, frustration, class, the north. And realised with a shock that it seems to be loss.

Given what kind of a year 2018 was it shouldn’t have been so surprising, and maybe it’s the 2018 hangover that’s making me view some of this with a loss-filter, but if I want to make that the theme of a collection it’s there.

Loss of family members and pets, naturally. Loss of youth. Loss of opportunity. Loss of friends and social networks. Loss of memory, vocabulary, personality, identity. Loss of dialect. Loss of places, buildings, green spaces. Loss of the past, of a different way of life.

I am without a doubt inclined to melancholy, and there are deaths that remain raw no matter the passage of years and will crop up in my writing forever, I’m sure. However, there are new kinds of losses that come with age or injury, or with a failed attempt to reconnect with friends or relatives whose paths diverged from yours along the way somewhere. Things you don’t realise the importance of until they’re gone.

Take the village of my early childhood, which my mum’s family had already called home for a hundred and fifty years before my birth (and even then, they’d only moved a mile up the road). It seemed perfectly natural (not to mention eternal) when I was young that scattered across the place were relatives’ current and former workplaces, and the houses of cousins, uncles, multi-generational family friends, and my paternal grandparents. Four generations of my family lived in their end-terrace for seventy years and more, and now there’s a stranger’s tarmac drive where once my grandparents’ rose garden was admired and tended and enjoyed. The older generations have died, and for the most part the younger have moved away (I for one live nearly twenty miles away). New houses (and blocks of flats, unthinkable in my childhood) stand where horses grazed and on mill and factory sites that closed down as I grew older. I wrote a story called Worth a Mint? about returning to old haunts, memories, identity (and death) which is partly set there, but as it’s well over 8,000 words it’s been hard to find magazines to submit it to. That story is a major reason why I want to put a (non-genre) collection together in the first place.

It’s not rose-tinted nostalgia, I appreciate having a phone and central heating (and broadband, and the ability to listen later to a BBC radio programme I missed) and I’d hate to go back in a time machine to the mid-eighties. For one thing I’d have to play the dried-pea game at New Year, in which younger members of the family were given a saucer and a drinking straw and told to transfer (with hands behind their back) as many dried peas from a tray to the saucer in a fixed time (“This was entertainment?” my cousin’s daughter asked at the start of 2019 as she played on her smartphone, to which we had to explain that yes, it seemed like it at the time). However, I do seem to set a fair few stories in the eighties and nineties, if only because I have more of a grasp on what life was like then. Ditching the TV at the start of 2002 I lost my grasp on popular culture (some might say I never had much of one anyway) and certainly now with no smartphone and not being on Whatsapp or Facebook I feel disconnected from the majority experience. I’m even starting to be baffled by some of the allusions on Radio 4’s News Quiz. Oh dear.

Which, I guess brings me back to the loss of youth and all that goes with it. The midlife crises in my stories, the attempts at reinvention, and regrets over the path not taken. As well as many a death of a parent or beloved aunt, or the disorientation of their dementia. All of these, and the loss of dialect, accent, roots, chip away at identity until eventually that can be lost too. There’s plenty of scope for writing about all these facets and I keep revisiting different angles.

Loss is universal, even if we lose different people and places and abilities we are all still experiencing similar aches and regrets. I’ll leave you with a link to Word Factory apprentice Sharon Telfer’s gorgeous flash fiction My Father Comforts Me in the Form of Birds which has stayed with me since I first read it last year. (Though in case anyone is concerned, I’ll reassure you that both mine and OneMonkey’s dads are fine).

Writing another gender

Recently, I overheard a woman express surprise that a male writer had written a novel from the point of view of a female character. She wasn’t disapproving, merely commenting on what she saw as an interesting choice. There is often an assumption that men can’t write convincing female characters (there may also be assertions I haven’t read, about women not writing convincing men) but it made me think about the assumptions that underpin that.

I’ve written from both male and female perspectives depending on what the story demanded at the time, and where I’ve written a short piece where the first-person narrator’s gender isn’t specified, I’ve had some people read it as male and some female, and both sets of readers seemed satisfied. If I stuck to writing my own gender, there’d be a whole host of common female experiences I might want to give my main characters that I have never had, affecting everything from everyday detail to major plot points and motivation:

  • I don’t wear a bra, underskirt, pop socks, tummy-control pants, and no doubt a whole list of things I don’t even know exist. I do feel like I’m in that episode of Father Ted whenever I venture into a lingerie department
  • I don’t wear high heels; the odd pair of cuban-heeled boots in the past but mainly it’s Doc Martens, Converse, and imitations thereof.
  • I’ve never worn, nor had any desire for, an engagement ring or a wedding dress
  • I’ve never planned a wedding, gone gooey over someone else’s wedding photos or engagement ring, or been on a hen night
  • I haven’t been a bridesmaid since I was seven
  • I’ve never found out I was pregnant, had a miscarriage or abortion, or used the morning-after pill
  • I’ve never been on maternity leave, or felt like I was being torn in two by the conflicting demands of children and career
  • I’ve never changed a nappy
  • I’ve never run for a bus and felt like my chest had a life of its own
  • I don’t wear make-up, and beyond lipstick and mascara (which I did wear at my gothiest) it’s all a bit of a mystery
  • Since I only have one ear pierced, I’ve never worn a discreet pair of matching earrings
  • I’ve never been to Weightwatchers, memorised the calorie content of common foods, or jumped on a new diet bandwagon
  • I’ve never worn false nails or false eyelashes, had highlights or a fancy hairdo
  • I’ve never thought about breast enhancements or agonised over cellulite
  • I’ve never been to be waxed, plucked, massaged or caked in mud in the name of beauty
  • I’ve never had a girls’ night in
  • I don’t see a baby and make strange noises and ask to hold it
  • I’ve never declared myself a feminist or had any interest in how many women are in senior positions at work
  • I don’t read women’s lifestyle magazines, keep up with fashion or enjoy clothes shopping
  • Despite having two sisters and a couple of close female friends I’ve never had the kind of conversations about sex and shopping that feature so heavily in the flicks

For any of these I (like the men who were being derided on social media for even attempting the exercise) would have to observe other people’s behaviour, ask a friend, or read up on it. People have such individual experiences of life that surely we all of us (writers, I mean) have to use empathy and imagination all the time in order to offer a range of believable characters. Gender is probably the broadest category out there, so to expect women to automatically have a better handle on female characters than men seems ludicrous. I suspect the men who fail to write female characters are also not much good at male characters unless they’re heavily based on themselves, and that’s got nothing to do with gender, it’s just a gap in their writing ability.

Life’s spanners and NaNoWriMo: getting back on the writing horse

It’s fair to say I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately, missing weeks, publishing posts I wrote ages ago for fallow times, or republishing old posts. You may recall about six months ago I began a new day job (completely unrelated to writing) after eighteen months of trying to write full-time, and I acknowledged that I’d have less time to write, and it would take time to form new habits and routines. However, I hadn’t taken on board that shorter lunchbreaks than in my last job meant I could no longer get to the library at lunchtime to write (I’m working about 100 yards away from my old office), and I hadn’t realised how reluctant I’d be to sit at a computer on an evening when I was spending seven hours in front of a screen during the day, rather than the old blend of screen, paper, and time away from a desk. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the succession of spanners life was about to chuck in the works.

In the last six months OneMonkey and I have encountered bereavement, health problems in the family involving long periods of waiting, disruption and upset and general stress which looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Plus we both turned forty and celebrated (dancing alone to our playlist) our twentieth anniversary. There has been much reflection on life and direction, priorities and what’s truly important.

For me, writing is definitely one of the important things, but such has been the effect of the past six months I’ve barely written anything. The writing community on Twitter is another one, but I’ve largely withdrawn from that partly due to squeezed time, partly because I don’t have the energy to be social. Those of you who’ve been around here a while or know me in real life know I’ve usually got a book in my hand (or I’ve just put it down for five minutes to make a cup of tea). I’ve been reading River of Gods by Ian McDonald for so long I’ve kind of forgotten what’s going on, I’m almost reading each chapter as a stand-alone story that sets off echoes of something else I once read, a long time ago. Clearly these are unusual times.

So, in part this stands as an apology for those of you who enjoy my blog and have been left wanting lately, and those of you who feel I’m neglecting you on Twitter, whose stories I haven’t read and whose successes I haven’t celebrated. In part (upbeat ending alert…) it serves as encouragement to keep trying – I’m aiming to take part in NaNoWriMo again this year.

Some people see NaNo as a competition, a thing to win, and if you haven’t written 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th you’ve failed. I see it as a cattle prod. There’s this writing you want to do, and it’s easy to lose it among the day to day. For one month NaNo and the other writers taking part will be saying come on, keep going, just write a bit more. And for one month you can tell yourself you can postpone this other thing or not spend as much time on that, and carve yourself out a writing niche. If you write 500 words during November when you didn’t think you’d manage any, then that’s an achievement. I certainly won’t be aiming at 50,000 words of the semi-rural fantasy, for one thing I reckon I only need another 30,000 to finish the draft, but I’ll try and write some, which is more than I’ve managed in a while.

Best of luck to anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ll let you know how I get on. Eventually.