Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Writing Wednesday: The Writing Process

I have set myself a deadline of Friday to complete the latest draft/edit of In the shade of the Mulberry Tree. It is looking tight: as I type I am at page 188 of 229. I have a lot of hand-written scribbles on my pages and I still have to type them up, and I know for a fact that there is a chapter coming up that is going to need serious revision. (Principally it needs cutting by about 25% but I'm not very good at leaving bits out. After all, I've slaved for hours to write them in the first place!)

Friday is not far away, and then there is half-term, which is bound to hinder the blog, the writing and everything.

So today's Writing Wednesday post is a bit of a cheat, in that it is a speedy link (albeit to worthwhile sites to look at). I came across the link through twitter over the weekend. So via Author Culture you can reach Discover, and Ed Yong's graph of the writing process.

It amuses me for the ring of truth. Clearly my memoir is a different beast to his science book, but there are a lot of similarities in the emotional peaks and troughs. I think I'm about halfway on the line up to 'It's done!' - although I don't have the surety of someone demanding (and paying for!) the book in the first place. Still, I can dream!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Malaria video

I came across this in one of my random wanderings around the internet and Africa and good causes. These people are nominated for awards for their films and this is a particularly good example: a community advert for the prevention of malaria in the Congo.
My only question is: Why is it (predominantly) in English, not French?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Writing Wednesday: What's in a name?

Every book needs a title.

A title draws the reader in. It expresses something of the style of the book, or its themes or scenario.

Some are blindingly obvious (Harry Potter and the... ) Some books put the series theme in such large print that it is hard to see what the actual book is called - just take a look at recent editions of Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.

I bought The Elegance of the Hedgehog for my father-in-law for Christmas based almost entirely on the title. It is quirky, enticing, intriguing. What on earth could that story be about?

Others use sub-titles to explain the book. This happens particularly with the self-help books (e.g. Business Stripped Bare (title) Adventures of a global entrepreneur (sub-title)) but can also be used to indicate a series (A discworld novel or An Hercule Poirot novel).

The problem with these is that they are already set, already known, already available in the bookshops. How do you go about getting a catchy title for your book which no-one knows?

I suspect that often it comes without thinking. Also, I imagine many novel writers write the book around the title more than the title after the book.

My book is a memoir. Everything has already happened, and in the interests of honesty I can tweak very little about the storyline! What are its themes? Motherhood. A sense of home. Poverty in sub-saharan Africa. The struggle to survive. What is its story? My transformation from misery at having to move to Zambia to my absolute love of the country and people. How can a title capture all these issues in just a few words?

Perhaps it can't. Originally I called it Singing in a Foreign Land, for I wanted to express how much I changed by living there. The problem it poses is that the story is not about singing in any way shape or form. (I do sing, but I don't write about it. Nor do it in public, given a choice!) For months I have been pondering a change - so much so that it has a new working title: In the shade of the Mulberry Tree.

There is a reasoning. We lived in a house with a large mulberry tree in the garden - so large that it cast its shadow over everything. Mulberries also have some medicinal properties, which feels apt given I was only in Africa because of my husband's medical research. And so his research cast a 'shadow' over where I lived and what I did. Not always in a bad way, I should add.

Is this title better? I don't know, although I am a lot more comfortable with it. For now it will do, but I remain open to the fact that any future editor or publisher may dismiss it out of hand.

Would that title encourage you to pick my book up and look at it? Can you think of a better title? (I'm open to suggestions!) I realise that there are a lot of other factors that also encourage someone to read a book, not least the design on the cover, but I would love to hear your views.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Losing the will to live

That's it.
I've had enough.
Is it really worth it? 
I'm thinking not.

Yes: it is insurance renewal time at the Withenay's. I have consumed all my 'spare' time this morning typing in my personal details on different comparison websites. This has produced a variety of numbers and offered different options - somehow, direct comparisons are virtually impossible. And I know I am of suspicious mind, so until I read the small print I don't really believe that I am covered for anything that would actually be a risk.

Why can't this be a simple process?
Why aren't all insurers on one website?
Why do they deceive you with their wording?
Why are new policies cheaper than renewals?

Most of all, why couldn't my husband have done this rather than me?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Writing Wednesday - Neither rhyme nor rhythm?

Despite the fact that I prefer writing prose to poetry, I was delighted to find an article in Mslexia magazine this quarter about rhyme in poetry. I had been intrigued by a reader's letter in the previous issue (48) that questioned whether rhyme is ever used in modern poetry, if it has been pushed to one side whilst blank verse takes over. It is creeping loss that I have noticed too.

I am no authority at all on poetry, but I do have a musical ear and love rhythm and rhyme. I loathe trite 'greetings card' type verse but a well-written rhyming verse can amuse or tell an excellent tale. For my O-level (yes, I am that old) English Literature I had to study narrative verse. My heckles were raised when my English teacher stated that if we didn't like Keats we weren't going to like anything - clearly wrong, given the enforced The Eve of St Agnes did nothing for me but Rudyard Kipling's Tomlinson and George Crabbe's Peter Grimes were fascinating.

Yet all these poems rhymed. They had a strict meter and rhythm, some of them a little forced but there nevertheless. I have been brought up with rhyming poetry, from nursery rhymes and songs, to hymns, to the many poems that my father has written. He is (in my extremely biased opinion) one of the best poets I know, able to whip up a poem from virtually nothing. He won a small prize last weekend for something he wrote when visiting us (a miracle in itself, with the chaos of our family resounding about him). Very little of his poetry is blank verse; but then again, his mastery of words and language is similar to Stephen Fry's.

What I don't like are poems that really should be written as paragraphs of prose. I'm sure the discipline of writing poetry forces an exquisite choice of words, but when done poorly these poems can be loose and appear to be the ramblings of a sad person. I say sad because that is usually how they appear: they all seem to be lovelorn or miserable! On the other hand, I do have some empathy, as when I am feeling low or some earth-shattering event has struck me I have sought solace by writing down my emotions in blank verse. I just don't often share it with the rest of the world!

The Mslexia article raised an interesting answer to the demise of rhyming poems. In the old days, poems were all aural. The rhyme helped people to learn the words and to recite them to others. This must have been particularly true of all those narrative verse I had to study (most of which dated back to the 18th or 19th century). Rhyme also helps children: why else do we know so many nursery rhymes and learn simple rhyming songs as young children? They are easy to pick up, to repeat and can get a lesson across easily. (For example, Five little speckled frogs/ sat on a speckled log...)

Nowadays, with the ease of written print, poetry can become a much more intellectual exercise. Add in to that the many different ways of rhyming, by the clever twists of meter and using words that sound similar but don't technically rhyme (oblique rhyme, such as 'one' and 'won') then there is much seemingly blank verse that has a lyrical quality to it.

Rhyming poetry certainly isn't dead. For example, Roger McGough writes much that is appreciated and most of the poetry I hear on Radio 4's Saturday Live is still in rhyme. Ah, but again that is aural. I still don't enjoy reams of unrhyming, unmetered verse (and I fear even Mslexia are guilty of praising and printing too much) but the concept of the battle between 'ear' and 'intellect' has helped me understand more of what I read and hear.

What do you think? Do you prefer poems to rhyme? 
What is your favourite poem?

Monday, 9 May 2011

You know you are getting old when...

... you find a piece of tooth in your mouth when eating nothing more innocuous than a cheese-and-marmalade sandwich, and then your dentist says, 'teeth become brittle after the age of 35...'

... when watching a Yorkshire cricket match you note that the first match recorded in your scorebook featured the fathers of two of the current players (Bairstow and Sidebottom, in case you're interested; Yorks v Kent 1979...)

... your son comments on how your shoes are old-fashioned ...

... you remember Now that's what I call music (number free; the first) being released and your children (with Now 78) are confused as they thought one came out every year ...

... the gentleman opposite on the train asks if the two young children you are with (my nephew and niece, taking them home) are your grandchildren...

*reaching for my zimmer-frame*

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Writing Wednesday: Two duds

I feel it may be seen as a bit of a cheat to review books on Writing Wednesday. Surely this should be about the art and craft and process of writing and publishing? Yet the best way to find your voice, to improve your writing, is to read others. It is preferable to read books of high quality: even within what may be viewed as low-grade books or commercial genres there is good and bad writing, excellent and appalling storylines, excitement and dullness.

Now I am into the editing phase of my book I am much more critical of author's writing, looking at the style, the number of adverts, the 'show, don't tell' approach, the cleverness of their use of language. So it is a shame that I am going to slam the latest two books my book club has read.

The first was When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant. This novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 (controversially, and ahead of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which I have also read and loved!) It is set in 1946 Palestine, as the Jews displaced from across Europe after the Second World War seek to establish their homeland. Eva, aged 19 at the start of the book, travels from London, falls in love and experiences first hand the violent struggle for freedom.

There were lots of things I didn't like about the book. Overall I struggled to find a story: a beginning, middle and end. I didn't empathise with Evelyn at all and the story (such as it was) petered out in the final chapters. I felt there was a lot of unreal dialogue, where the history of the place and the people was set out. Getting facts into novels, particularly historical ones, is difficult to do without being clumsy. At times it felt more like a textbook, teaching me the politics rather than engaging me with characters. It is not a time, place or location that I knew a lot about but I'm afraid it didn't entice me to find out more. I was just grateful to put the book down.

The second book I've read is The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson. It is about a woman who runs out of her house one morning and drives to the Norfolk coast. Renting a cottage she hides away, contemplating life without her husband. The cover includes positive reviews (obviously) including one from the Sunday Times which states: 'A wonderfully observant character portrait that veers between the side-splitting and the heart-breaking.'

To me the biggest disappointment was that it wasn't funny. If it is billed as hilarious then I expect to laugh, frequently, and, whilst the odd sentence amused me, it was really quite a depressing story about a 63-year-old woman who has gone off the rails. I don't think the writer fully understood how a woman that age and class might truly feel and react. I recognise that everyone grieves differently and just because I don't think I would be anywhere close to behaving like that doesn't mean that another person wouldn't have a different reaction. Still, it didn't ring true, which kills the character who is also the 'author' of the book. Mick Jackson is male and I felt he didn't get a woman's voice into the main protagonist. The writing was readable but not scintillating and the conclusion was unremarkable.

It is a shame to read two poor books in a row, but I have still learnt from them. Hopefully noticing their bad points will help to improve my writing in the future.
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