Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Reading Refresher - FutureLearn

When it comes to reading I am rather slow, both mechanically and intellectually. I am often conscious of reading in a superficial and non-analytical way, although clearly there is a difference between reading for pleasure, entertainment and relaxation and reading as an active process of discovery, enlightenment and challenge. Writers need to be readers and I recently felt in need of some kind of ‘refresher’. So I followed one of the free courses offered by FutureLearn, called How to Read a Novel,
at which a few of my friends laughed and commented. ‘Don’t you know how to do that already!’

What attracted me to the course was the fact that it involved no cost, was online and allowed participants to do as much or as little as they pleased. Also, and more importantly it featured four novels and two writers I had never heard of, but which were shortlisted for the James Tait Black fiction prize 2017: C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree. These were books I would never have chosen to read, (ranging as they did from a large American ‘saga’ type novel, to an erotic gay work) but guided by the excellent presentations by the course leader (Dr Alex Lawrie, University of Edinburgh), short articles and interviews with the writers, I was able to appreciate, if not to like, the particular qualities of each book.

The course took a fairly standard approach to the study of fiction, by considering the elements of plot, characterisation, dialogue and setting, but I liked being reminded of these basic ingredients and found the extracts used to elucidate them revealing. Whatever else the books did for other readers, for me they provoked a response and triggered some important questioning around the use of the certain techniques in fictional writing. Participants (from anywhere in the world) were invited to comment and answer questions at certain points in the course. Some of these offered very useful insights too. Overall, I found this course a refreshing and stimulating experience and I was also motivated to experiment with different techniques in my own writing.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Fish short-story prize-winner- Helen Chambers of Wivenhoe Writers!

I want to scream this from the rooftops: I’ve won the FishShort Story Prize for 2017/18 and this exciting, overwhelming, wonderful news has had to remain below the radar for nearly three weeks. I’m just about bursting!

The email, when it arrived (I’d submitted the previous November and, as advised, forgotten about it), was so unexpected and such a surprise, that I asked Marcus, my long-suffering husband, to check I’d understood it correctly. He agreed with me – I’d won! This means that it’ll be published in their 2018 anthology, that I’ll hopefully get to visit the West Cork Literary Festival in July and meet some of the other shortlisted writers and hear their work, but also so much more than that. I’m aware that it’s a prestigious competition and it’s going to make my writing CV look so much more impressive!

I’ve been walking around in a daze since then. I’m truly delighted. It’s a huge boost to my confidence, which, as a writer (I can definitely say I am a writer now!) tends to fluctuate wildly. Writing can be a lonely activity, so feedback – from friends, other writers and especially competition judges, is always welcome and helpful. I’m glad that judge Billy O’Callaghan liked my story ‘Clippings’ as I’m aware that a preference for one shortlisted story over another can be rather subjective. I’m especially fond of my protagonist, Tilly, as I’ve spent so much time with her, and I’m sure she’d be pleased for me.

The judge said:
'Clippings – Just exceptional. I was a bit sceptical at first of the structure, but the story unfurls wonderfully. Incredibly emotional, truthful and heartfelt. Beautifully drawn characters. I read this several times over the past two weeks and as I sit here now, I want to read it again. It’s a story that has left a deep impression on me.'

It’s boosted my enthusiasm too – to revisit a novel I’d put on hold, to carve out proper writing time for myself instead of letting it drop down the priority list, and most importantly, to keep writing. Don’t any of you ever give up – you never know what’s round the corner! Many thanks to friends, family and writing friends for their support and encouragement, and most especially to The Wivenhoe Writers, who all know Tilly too.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Talking about Style by Pauline Rendall

New writers are often told that they must try and find their own voice. Whilst clearly true, it’s not always easy to establish this, at least to begin with. It’s also true to say that, the more one writes, the more likely it is to find one’s own voice.
            One way of getting a grip on this is through style. It doesn’t have to be unique to you, but it does need to convey, not just what you want to say, but the spirit of it too. It’s about developing your natural tendencies and polishing them to be the best they can be.
Unfortunately there are a few errors that can get in the way of good style. One example is in the use of clichés, which have a tendency to deaden style.
Some examples might be:
Leave no stone unturned
The luck of the devil (or the Irish)
What’s done is done
No good crying over spilt milk
Pangs of remorse.
Heartstrings tugged
The silvery light of the moon
He stood stock still
Tears stung her eyes
Her heart pounded
Petite and vivacious
White as snow
Black as coal
Soft as silk (or swansdown)
I’m sure you can think of loads more for yourself. And this doesn’t mean you can never use them, but if you do, you need to be sure exactly why you are using them. For instance, perhaps you might use them in dialogue, maybe to show that a character doesn’t have much education, or is an incurable romantic (there you are, there’s another one!). This is where the clichés belong to the character and not the writer.
There are also cliché situations, for instance:
Beginning an novel or short story with someone looking in a mirror
A suicide note on the mantelpiece
Someone dropping a glass (or anything) when they hear bad news.
The story that ends ‘it was all a dream’
And don’t forget cliché characters. These and the cliché situation are often referred to as ‘tropes’. The usual meaning for trope is an overdone literary device. Think back to Hollywood movies in the forties. How many Westerns have a dark-haired, often Hispanic, saloon girl. She’s kind and well-meaning (the’ tart with the heart of gold’ trope), but usually gets shot protecting either the hero or the golden-haired heroine. Or the gangster/bandit/highwayman/contract killer who has a change of heart, but who has to die by the end because we’ve come to like him and we don’t like to think of him languishing in jail. Up to a point, these tropes help us identify with the film or book. We’re comfortable, we know that right will prevail in the end. But haven’t they been done to death? Don’t we groan when we see it happening all over again?
            Here are some more:
            The handsome prince
The body in the wardrobe/deep freeze. (anybody remember Francis Durbridge?)
Twins brought up apart
The butler did it
Finding a long lost letter
The unloved fat boy
The solitary geek
The femme fatale
The picture/ornament under the sink that turns out to be worth a fortune
The broken down horse rescued from slaughter that turns out to be a famous show-jumper (I did that one!).
The country house murder with the final dénouement in the drawing room (only Agatha Christie can get away with this because she was among the first to do it).
Crime novels abound with them, as I know to my cost. How often is the body found by a dog-walker? The trouble is, that’s very often how it happens in real life. So do it once if you must, but no more than that.
Fantasy and horror stories also abound with them: the room suddenly going cold, the dog growling into the corner, the window bursting open,  the lights suddenly going out… there are people who do this brilliantly, but today it’s all a bit old hat.
One simple adjective to describe all of the above is ‘corny’. Try not to fall into the trap. This isn’t to say you can’t use clichés or tropes, but if you do, you need to find some way of making them fresh. Maybe you can use them but subvert them in some way. Maybe Puss-in-Boots’ feet are being rubbed raw by the boots and he refuses to walk any further, maybe Sleeping Beauty is male and is rescued by the princess. Existing examples might be many of the female characters in George R.R. Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire’, where, for instance the little girl Arya Stark, orphaned and abandoned becomes, first of all, an adept swordswoman and then a trained assassin, while Brienne of Tarth is a typical ‘knight in shining armour’, displaying all the knightly values of honour and chivalry, yet is a woman, and mocked for her knightly attributes by the men around her.
But whatever voice or style you settle on, be sure to make it so fresh that your reader wants to turn every page. After all, that’s why we do it.