Trying to Wave, Not Drown

When I first started writing this blog, I believed I could keep it going with updates about my writing. I soon realised that this idea was both pretentious, and boring for anyone other than me myself personally. Writers who have published the sort of books you pay for may use their blogs to promote them, but their advertising posts tend to be a bit of a yawn. (Over the last few months I have read several articles recommending that writers should keep promotional content on social media to a minimum, twenty per cent or less.) Someone who has made an enormous success of an ‘about me’ blog, however, is musician, Charlotte Hoather, and the reason  is that she shares, rather than boasts. Her blog comes across as ‘Look, this is what I’m doing. Right now, I’m singing at the Eisteddfod – isn’t it exciting? Whoever would’ve thought I’d be doing this?” Even though I’m not a musician, but I thoroughly enjoy Charlotte’s weekly updates.

I have to confess, Dear Reader, that over the last few months I have had nothing to tell you. Although I have some stories ‘out there’, the editors I’ve subbed to seem to have caught my inertia and I’m not receiving even rejections. I have been #notwriting, or, more specifically, #ammarking – both of these do exist on Twitter, by the way. During every waking moment, I have alternately either marked students’ work, or cajoled students to produce more work to be marked. Now I am on leave but still the interface of Moodle (the virtual learning environment we use for assessment) lurks in front of my eyes every time I close them.

Moodle interface.

The stress of work has squashed out of me all thoughts of stories and characters. As my husband is out for the evening, I have peace and quiet and generally the sort of environment for some proper writing – fiction, I mean – yet I’m doing this instead. I am too tired to write. I know the received writerly wisdom is that you should always keep going but I can’t. I just can’t put myself through the stress of looking at an empty screen and trying to squeeze something out of my fingers.

So, I’m going to do some writing-orientated reading instead. Only this week, Helen Yendall, in her Blog About Writing, reiterated that, if you want to write for womags, you’ve got to read them. Pretty obvious, really, but I don’t do enough of it. I have also resolved to do some more background reading for The Novel; unfortunately, all the books I need are expensive and only one is available on Kindle. To the university library, I think – one of the small advantages of working where I do!

Yesterday, I was in Cambridge. (I wish I could say I was doing research for the small parts of The Novel which take place in Cambridge, but I doubt if my character would ever set foot in King’s College Chapel, especially as she is Catholic.) However, when browsing a second-hand book stall in St Mary’s Market, I came across a hard-backed version of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’, which turned out to be a biography of Angela Brazil, writer of school stories during the inter-war years. I never buy paper-based nowadays, but I did on this occasion, because this small dusty tome was blatantly out of print. Research? Possibly, because one of my short story drafts is about a schoolgirl in 1939, but this was right up my street anyway! I am also making my way through ‘A Very British Murder’ by Lucy Worsley, even though I know I could never tackle detective fiction.

So, Dear Reader, we are both the same now.

(Copyright of image owned by author.)

Review of ‘In the Kitchen With a Knife’ by Susan Wright

Available from Alfie Dog Fiction here.  This is a repeat of a review I’ve posted on Goodreads and Amazon, as a member of the Reading Panel for Alfie Dog Fiction.

Caroline rents a Riverbank Cottage in a Sussex village with no thought of ‘getting involved’ with the neighbours. On the run from an abusive husband, Caroline just wants to get on with writing her erotic novels, but, as everybody in the village rushes to tell her, many years ago A Murder took place in Riverside Cottage – in the kitchen with a knife. No one had been convicted of the crime, nor was there anyone with an obvious motive. Some people think it must be the victim’s husband, others her rather fit son, Toby… or any number of other people. Oh, and by the way, the little house is haunted, although this turns out to be more of a plumbing issue.

When Caroline discovers that her erotic novels are not selling as well as before, she considers writing a book about the Riverside Cottage murders. However, as soon as she announces this intention, the village clams up on her, poison pen letters plop on to her doormat and her agent refuses to continue to represent her. Caroline, however, soldiers on with her combined sleuthing cum novel research, with the help of her good-natured and indefatigable neighbour, Maggie Clements. The story ends with a twist that I certainly didn’t anticipate, but, like all the best twists, hints, which the reader only recognises after the reveal, were dropped earlier in the text.

Caroline herself was a companionable sort of main character, although not particularly distinctive. Susan might have developed a point she made early on, that Caroline was actually quite ‘straitlaced’, unsuited to writing erotica, and what brought her into this genre. She might also have made more of the abusive husband; the reader is told repeatedly that Caroline is terrified of him finding her, but, when he does appear, he is despatched very quickly, and not mentioned again. The most effective character in the book is the neighbour, Maggie Clements, locked in a dysfunctional marriage, fat, slovenly, and obsessed with her two enormous dogs. Kind and obviously fond of mc, she also takes advantage of Caroline. Maggie’s reaction, when she finds out what her husband is really getting up to, is from the gut and totally believable, but she moves on, with the help of Caroline and others.

‘In the Kitchen With a Knife’ was an enjoyable, easy read – ‘cosy crime’, of the sort Caroline intended to write, with a love interest. Do I recommend it? Yes, definitely.  Dagger, possible murder weapon

What I did not include on my Amazon and Goodreads reviews was that this novel was what kept me going during one of the most demanding and exhausting periods of my working life.  As you will have become aware, Dear Reader, I have not done ANY writing at all over the last few months, except for occasional blog posts here.  Never believe it when people tell you that teachers get long holidays and generally don’t do anything.  Last weekend, I marked ALL weekend, except for a few hours when my husband dragged me away for a drive out in the country and a cream tea.  This week, I have marked every evening and all day Saturday.  I am still not out of the heat yet.  When I return to college tomorrow morning, I will once again find myself rushing around marking, organising students and speaking to/emailing parents whose kids are suffering understandable mental stress caused by an extremely poorly designed and managed qualification (by the awarding body, not our college).  I am so tired I don’t feel like writing at all.  I have to get this lot sorted out by 15 July, when I go on leave.  Many of you are having successes, with stories placed and published.  Well done, all of you.  I long to be up there with you.

Review of ‘The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden’ by Jonas Jonasson

Available in hard copy from HarperCollins.

We first meet Nombeko at the age of fourteen as a latrine emptier in Soweto, South Africa.  At this point it would seem very unlikely that she would ever reach Sweden, let alone get around to saving the king of that country, but this book is by the Jonas Jonasson, author of ‘The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’, master of the absurd, tenuous and ridiculous

Nombeko’s career follows an unusual path:  after the latrines, she becomes a cleaner at an atomic research establishment, then a pillow trader, a potato grower and many many other things.  Unique for being able to do what the author describes as ‘counting’ – but what most of the rest of us would recognise as advanced mathematics – Nombeko is at once invaluable to everyone she comes into contact with, yet, at the same time, her life is in danger because she ‘knows too much’.

Following on as it does from ‘The 100 Year Old Man etc’, this book follows much of the same pattern,  its timeline stretching over many generations and different locations, and with characters hobnobbing with famous politicians and influencing world events.  The author has (real) Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, running around a kitchen wearing an apron and washing the floor, with him the (real) king, Carl XVI Gustaf, sitting around in a bloodstrain shirt having just slaughtered two chickens.  Bearing in mind that most publishers and authors refuse to allow us poor aspirant writers to include anything about real living people, I feel Jonas goes too far.  And he goes further, with Carl Gustaf infering that his (real) grandfather, King Gustav V, had interfered with one of the (fictional) characters as a child.  Whereas I understand from Wikipedia (where else?) that King Gustav had a homosexual lover (in an age where such things were not allowed), there is no firm evidence that he was a paedophile, although I understand (from elsewhere on the internet) that there were rumours.  Maybe this is what Swedes gossip about, rather as we speculate about Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson sitting around in tea shops in Frinton-on-Sea, but you can’t set down on the printed/electronic page the sort of thing what you might bandy about amongst your mates.

Jonas also has a very casual attitude towards explosives, as we discovered in the ’100 Year Man’, but now his nonchalance extends to atomic bombs.  Whereas the explosive thing was funny, atomic bombs are not – ever.

The main four characters – Numbeko, the two Holgar brothers and The Angry Young Woman – were excellently drawn and distinct from each other.  Jonas managed very effectively to keep Numbeko plucky, feisty and off the wall, even though she was the main character and we saw most of the narrative through her eyes.  Other interesting characters included the Holgar brothers’ father and mother, Ingmar and Henrietta, and the delightful ‘three Chinese girls’, who were never properly named.  Minor characters, however, tended to be cameos, such as the chairman of the atomic research establishment, Mr van der Westhuizen.  In fact, when reading the part of the story which took place in South Africa, I felt I was wading through stereotypes, created in the image of the received liberal establishment view, handed down to the generation who never lived alongside apartheid, unleavened and lacking believable detail.

So would I recommend ‘The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden’?  I think you know the answer.  It is said about rock bands that their first album is great because it consists of music that has been developed over many years and the third one, which appears much later, is a mature, thoughtful development of their music.  In between them comes the second album, which is just a reheating of the band’s first ideas.  I believe this rule applies to this second book.  I look forward to Jonas’s book number 3, which, I hope, in the nicest possible way, doesn’t appear on the shelves too soon.  In the meantime, enjoy some views of rural Sweden.  I’ve never been, but I understand it’s very beautiful and unspoilt.

Swedish landscapeswedish_landscapeHalso Island

(All images copyright-free).

How I Conduct My Business as an Author Part 2

charliebritten:

Diversifying one’s blog surely makes sense for writers. After we are real people underneath, aren’t we? I’ve thought about doing so on my blog, a lot, but haven’t dared. I will now.

Originally posted on From Meredith Allard:

4. I Use Social Media My Own Way

I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Linkedin, Goodreads, and Pinterest. I have this handy-dandy blog. I know there are other social media sites out there, but there are only so many hours in the day, you know?

If you’re an author, I do believe it’s important to get yourself out there however you can, and these days the name of the game is social media. Engagement on the different social media channels is important because you want people to know there’s a human being at the other end of the profile. I try to respond to every private message I receive, I’m generous in pinning and tweeting posts and articles from others that I’ve found interesting, and I’m always looking to like someone else’s posts.

I do far more promotion of others than I do of my own work. Joanna Penn and others refer…

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Why Do We Do Write? Why Do I Write?

As you know, Dear Writer, writing is hard work, exhausting, difficult, slow-going, an anti-social activity, demanding total concentration. It makes you grumpy. You tend to snap at husbands/wives and anybody else who has the audacity to they speak to you. And when you’ve finished your masterpiece, can you get anyone to read it, let alone publish it? Right now, my husband is watching James Bond on television. Should I be saving my fingers and my energy watching it with him? And the cat wants to sit on my knee. Why on earth do we do it?

There are two main reasons for writing:

  1. for money
  2. because you (the writer) wants to.

Most of us, of course, believe we can achieve both, that is, get a grateful public to read what wanted to write and pay for the privilege. It worked for Dickens, you know, although he, being editor of his own magazine (‘Household Words’), accepted his own submissions. Was that cheating? (Probably not, as he was quite good at it.) Several decades later,Johanna Spyri wrote ‘Heidi’, quite specifically in order to make money. Well done, Johanna. Writing cutesie stories about little girls in the Alps certainly beats my day job!

If we were really writing only for financial reward, we would probably become journalists. My daughter earns her living by writing about green energy, and is very organised and business-like about it, studying markets, cultivating clients and pitching (agreeing) every article before it is researched and entered on to computer. But, even though she is very passionate about all things green, that’s not the same, you say. It isn’t.

Most fiction writers write because they feel driven, sure they have the most wonderful story to tell, with the most amazing characters, funny, sad and intensely moving. It is a feeling akin to falling in love, because the author is passionate and biased in the same way as a lover. Sooner or later, he/she will hit ‘Chapter 11 Syndrome’ where reality hits. The plot unravels, the jokes lack sparkle, the moving bits don’t move the person writing them (let alone anyone else) and he/she realises that he/she doesn’t know enough about his/her characters. Ty Roper expresses this very well in his blog Time to Write. Other writers just plod on regardless and oblivious. They’re enjoying themselves hugely and (saving the odd bad-tempered riposte aimed at family members), not doing anyone any harm. Their hobby is cheap, better in every way than watching the telly or playing computer games, but writing in this way can be self-indulgent.

I myself started composing stories in my head at primary school age because there weren’t ENOUGH stories for me to read. In my early teens, I start to write in pencil in lined exercise books, about what interested me (but not necessarily anyone else – indeed, probably no one else). I continued for many decades, moving on to A4 file paper and eventually on to computer, inventing my own world where everything would work my way. I wrote for love – compulsively – although in fairness I did go over my work and edit it a lot to improve it. But for whom? Ah, one day I would be an acclaimed writer. The publisher would be wowed by it and so would the readers. One day. In the meantime, I was immersed in a load of characters and a private world no one else knew about.

After a very long time, writing for myself no longer satisfied me. I was telling my stories, expressing myself as best I could – into a vacuum. Surely, there were loads of readers out there longing to hear them. Well, actually, no. Quite quickly, I appreciated that I had a great deal to learn, and, as I started to learn it, I began writing with a view to publication – but not for money. The whopping highs I experience from writing come from getting my work accepted. Occasionally, I have been paid – probably just over £50 in total, not anything like enough to live on – but I have a day job with a salary. Getting paid for writing is not important to me.

My long-term self wants to write more and has many ideas, but my present-day person is tired and preoccupied with this day job, which saps my energy and creativity. Often, I confess, writing for publication is not enjoyable for me. So why do I do it?

Open Office Interface(Image from Wikimedia.  Copyright-free.)

It’s Been a Long Time…

If you’re going to blog, you’re supposed to do so briefly and regularly, but over the last few weeks I haven’t – not even the smallest post.  Am I about to give up?  Is this blog about to drift into oblivion?  No, Dear Reader, no.  Also, shouldn’t writers write every day?  Yes, Dear Reader, yes.  And read every day, keep abreast of markets, research backgrounds for all stories, raise their profile by taking part in social networking,  eat their five-a-day fruit and veg, do thirty minutes strenuous exercise three times a week, and somehow fit in eight hours of sleep a night.  Right!

And some of us have to work as well.  That’s my problem. There’s part-time work, full-time work and then there’s teaching, which is not so much full-time as full-on.  I teach.   When I do get some time to write, I’m exhausted, can’t think straight, struggling to find interesting words and ideas. Have I said this before?  You bet.

So, it’s ten thirty and I’m competing with the weather forecast on telly, so I’m thinking of signing off now.  That’s another thing:  thou shalt not use thy computer late at night, blue light from the screen which affects chemicals in thy brain etc etc.

Hang on, hang on.  When are you going to give us your review of ‘While No One Was Watching’ by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, seeing as you’re now saying in your sidebar that you’re now reading something else?  Indeed.  ‘While No One Was Watching’  (based around Kennedy’s assassination in 1963) was one of the best-written novels I’ve read for a long time.  I enjoyed it.  Of course I did.  But it was also the best possible lesson for all would-be writers of historical fiction: how to write descriptions; how to describe characters through observing their actions in great detail; how to use two points of view effectively; how to get into characters; how to use a well-worn angle (clapped-out journalist struggling to retain interest in journalism and job) and make it different; how to use historical material in context of the storyline.   The review proper isn’t here because I intend to sub it to one of the literary magazines that takes reviews.  If it gets placed, I’ll add a link to the published review on this blog.  Yep.  You bet I will!

Suppose I’d better write it first, though.  It’s now eleven o’clock, so it really is good night.  You don’t really want a picture, do you?  Oh, all right then, I’ll find one of JFK.   He was quite a looker in his day, you know.  Marilyn certainly thought so.President John F Kennedy

(image from en.wikipedia.org)

Watching Other Writers’ Blogs

What makes a writing blog worth reading? Well, you’re here on this site, Dear Reader. Can you tell me? All right. Don’t worry about it. I’ll ask someone else. In fact, the week before last, I sent a questionnaire to three writing bloggers, and the post that follows is based upon their responses.

Overall their reasons for reading and following other writers’ blogs were very positive. They are looking for writing tips, market and competition news, friendship and networking and reassurance and encouragement. When they make comments, it is to congratulate or commiserate writer-bloggers, to discuss a market or technical writing point or to offer their advice. One of them looked at blogs to compare styles of writing and to see how each blogger’s style compared with her own. None of them were surfing absently, seeking any distraction from the day job or from their own writing – which is what I feared.

Surprisingly, they didn’t devour writing magazines (either printed or online) in huge quantities. Two respondents recommended other sites, ‘The Write Practice’ and ‘CommuniCATE Resources for Writers’ – both of which are new to me – for their useful articles and tips. I will look into these.

They weren’t too worried about if blogs written by writers included posts about their everyday lives. However, a distinction was made between general blogs which happened to be hosted by writers and specific ‘writing blogs’; the latter they would dRich Picture About Bloggingefinitely expect to keep to topic. More importantly, what they were seeking was, not just useful and interesting information, but humour or ‘a fun read’ and someone who had ‘a real passion for writing’. The big turn off was bloggers who took themselves too seriously or – even worse – did nothing but self-promote (or promoted someone else), although a little self-advertisement was tolerated.

They all liked the interactive-ness of blogging and liked to leave comments to show that they had ‘dropped by’. One respondent reported that she was drawn to blogs where the author was receptive and enters into dialogue, and – most telling of all – is prepared to take the time to visit her site and comment. Following back should feel like it is ‘part of a relationship’.

Although all three respondents watch many writers’ blogs, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they read every word of every sentence of every post of every blog. Like me, they wouldn’t even click on the email alerts if a particular post doesn’t look interesting. We’ve all read, I’m sure, about how important headings are in blogs and on websites generally and this reinforces that point, as most blogging applications include the post heading in the heading of the email alert.

Thank you very much, Julie, Mishka and Patsy. If anyone else reading this, would like to answer my questionnaire, please contact me. I’d be very interested to hear from you.

(Image by  jonny goldstein  available from Flickr)

Review of ‘The Good Knight’ by Sarah Woodbury

Available from Feedbook’s website. 

‘The Good Night’ is a historical detective story set in medieval Wales.  It follows a straightforward recipe: two detectives, one male and one female,  in love with one another and working together to resolve a murder, against the backdrop of north Wales, which the author clearly knows like the back if her hand. The action takes place in the twelfth century, when the Danes were a constant threat, especially the Dublin Danes across the Irish Sea, plus the more sophisticated Normans to the East in England. Owain Gwynedd was King of Wales, but suffering frequent bad-tempered challenges from his brother, Cadwalladr. This period and setting will be familiar in part to readers of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael stories (although Cadfael was based in Shrewsbury Abbey).

Even though the word count only totalled 37,000, the plot was long and complicated, with many twists and sub-plots, especially at the end. The book might have finished in Dublin at 80%, but continued in the same vein, obliging the protagonists to rescue the damsel-in-distress a second time. The storyline was enhanced by Sarah’s intense and wide-ranging knowledge of the machinations of Welsh princes, mind sets and world views, and of how everyday life was lived during this period. The author’s excellent historical perspective led her to include several scenes where the ‘goodies’, as well as the ‘baddies’, murdered people without a second thought, but this is what you did in medieval times, especially if your little kingdom was squeezed between the Vikings and the Normans. There weren’t many concerned and hand-wringing liberals around in those days!

As Sarah included many real-life historical figures into the story, every character (apart from the Danes) had an authentic Welsh name, which made working out who was who awkward, despite the prologue telling us how Welsh names are pronounced, and especially as the author took it for granted that the reader would remember everyone at first mention. This problem might have been alleviated if more of the fictional personages had had more familiar Welsh names like ‘Gareth’ and ‘Gwen’, the two main detectives. Also, in my opinion, there were too many characters generally, and as a result it was difficult to develop all of them properly. Hot tempered and touchy Owain Gwynedd came out well, as did his sons, Rhun and Hywell, but I really didn’t get what was driving the villain, Cadwalladr; nor did Owain Gwynedd, methinks. Also some potentially interesting females – like Cristina (Owain’s mistress) and Alice (Cadwalladr’s wife) – needed developing further.

The Webster English in which this was written was at first disconcerting, and seemed out of keeping with the twelfth century, but I then learned that the author lived in the United States – so she is forgiven! Sarah wrote – refreshingly – outside ‘The Rules’, using brackets and adverbs frequently and many, many reps. However, one incorrect use of it’s stuck out like a sore thumb. Self-published authors do not get the benefit of non experienced, professional proofreader!

Although it read as a complete story in itself, ‘The Good Knight’ is the second of five ‘Gareth and Gwen’ novels – for more details, visit Sarah’s website at http://www.sarahwoodbury.com. Sarah has also written twelve other historical novels, with two touching upon the paranormal (none of which I have read). Would it recommend this? Yes, for a good read, based upon sound historical research.

A footnote: very sad to hear of the untimely death of my fellow Leicester-ian Sue Townsend. No one could write about the mundane as she did and make you laugh as loudly. She will be sadly missed.

Another footnote: as I’m currently on holiday in Sicily at the moment and I don’t have a travel blog (although I keep thinking of building one), I thought I would end with a photo.

Agrigento, Southern Sicily.

Agrigento, Southern Sicily.

Review of ‘The Hangman’s Daughter’ by Oliver Potzch

Available from Amazon.  Original German publisher Ullstein Taschenbuch.

It’s taken me a long time to read this book.   As its title suggests, much of the writing was bloodthirsty and, as you know, Dear Hangman GameReader, I don’t do blood and guts, torture even less.  To be honest, it wasn’t my ‘cup of tea’, but, fortunately for the world of literature in general, a novel’s worth does not depend upon entirely on what Charlie Britten thinks.

Based in early modern Schongau in Bavaria, the story concerns accusations of witchcraft and the battle of Jacob Kuisl (the town hangman) and Simon (a young physician) to save Martha Stechlin (the local midwife) from being burned at the stake.  It should rightly have been called ‘The Hangman’ because he is the main character and the hangman’s daughter, Madgalena, only has a relatively small part in it.   Although he seems to take an especial delight in describing dirt (mud, filth, sweat and excrement), Oliver has done his research very well, not just into the hangman and witches but in seventeenth century life in general, particularly regarding people’s attitudes to each other and executioners, doctors and midwives and their neighbours in Augsburg in particular.    However, I did feel that he failed to understand how people in the seventeenth century worshipped, allowing one character to say that he doesn’t believe in the devil or the heavenly father;  with the Reformation only just settling, everybody would have accepted both unquestioningly.

Jacob Kuisl is portrayed in a very favourable light; it is difficult to get one’s head around the idea of a nice hangman, definitely on the side of the angels, who tortures but tries not to hurt his victims.   The hangman has a certain Holmesian quality about him, always right, always able to fight his way out of a corner, and, as the novel progresses, Simon develops into a well-meaning but flummoxed Watson.   Magdalena comes across as a sort of pale Elizabeth Bennett – with her petticoats covered in mud at several points.  Apart from Simon, Magdalena, Martha, it is clear that the author has no time for any of the other adult characters.  In the prologue Oliver tells us that he is a descendant of the Kuisl family, but that the story itself is a novel; this, I feel, affected the way he drew his characters, with possibly too much respect and too little complexity.

I read this book in English – obviously.  Lee Chadeayne’s translation from German to English was smooth and natural, to the extent that the reader might be forgiven for thinking that it had been written in English originally.  Certain words and placenames were not translated eg Stadl and Ballenhaus, and, even though I don’t know for sure what they mean (although one can hazard a guess),  referring to them by in English would have taken them out of their seventeenth century German setting.

So, there it is.  The wrong book for me, I think.

On another topic, I didn’t submit an entry to the Mslexia Short Story comp.  As usual, life took over and the story wasn’t finished – not in the sense that I hadn’t written the last few paragraphs, but it wasn’t fully edited.  It still didn’t feel quite right.  Last year, I did submit and I remember posting on Chapter Seventynine (the writing site I belong to) that you shouldn’t waste £10 on a story that’s blatantly not ready.  Here we go again!

No, my  key on’t ork.  Oops!  I meant I’m having problems with my W key.  Computers, eh?  At least, I’m not sharpening pencils, I suppose.

(Image from Wikimedia.)