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The Writer’s Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result


Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

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The Extension

In which an annex is announced


As you can see, as I’ve mentioned more than a few times already, this site has been fairly quiet for the past few months, since we’ve moved house. We’ve come up with a cunning solution, though. Start another blog!

It’s not really a separate blog; it’s more of an annex to this one. A separate side-project, with rather more of a focus than this rambling monstrosity,* with a specific topic, rather than whatever I can conjure up to make 500 words of. The idea being, a narrower topic will make ideas come more easily. It is: The Symbolic Forest Gardenblog.

Gardening posts on this site – all none of them – will now appear over on the gardening blog. Gardening-related photos will pop up over there too. Anything I write that isn’t about gardening, that will still be over here. Keeping it in this domain might end up a bit confusing, because forest gardening is a recognised genre that is almost entirely unlike our garden so far. Hopefully readers will pick up that it’s the Symbolic Forest Gardenblog, not the Symbolic Forest Gardenblog.

* and it’s not going to have footnotes, either.

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Suddenly, half a year

In which FP exercises


Well, hello again. Apparently, it’s summer.

Regularly, I do get urges to come back to the Admin Interface and write a bit more prose-doodling for this website. There are so many other things to do that keep me occupied, though. Now it’s summertime, the garden at Symbolic Towers is lush and green, and instead of getting on with things indoors you can regularly find me outside, hiding behind the Bee House,* pottering around the garden, deadheading the marigolds and worrying about the effect of leafhoppers on the potato harvest. As the gardens at Symbolic Towers are barely the size of a damselfly’s bandana, though, I am usually easy to spot.

Checking back, I’ve just realised that the entries on the main page still include things I wrote over a year ago now – for example, you can still see the ice monster we defeated when we moved house, down below this one. It’s not very good performance, for a blog that was originally started with the aim of posting every weekday. There are, however, more things in my head that I do plan to write about, some time over the next few months. Maybe I’ll actually manage them at some point. If nothing else, I should start posting pictures of the verdant garden, before it stops being verdant and crumbles back into autumn mulch. The pea plants are already starting to look a bit mildewed.

Lots has been in the news in the past few months about exams: about exam boards getting the questions wrong, about teenagers staring down baffled at unanswerable questions, and then about kids and parents complaining that they don’t want to be marked down for the question-setters’ mistakes. I have to say, my first thought was: surely, this is a learning experience? One of the first tips I was taught at school was: exam questions, numerically-based ones, are usually carefully worked out so that you’ll get nice neat answers at the end. The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that. When you’ve left school, you’ll find out that real world questions don’t have nice neat answers, and that often people will ask you things that are unanswerable, or insoluble with the information you have. Discovering that fact in the middle of an exam is probably a very good place to learn it. Possibly, this is why I should never become a teacher.

For now, that will do for a blog post. I will come back and try to write more in a few days; get my writing muscles unstiffened and flexible again. Because, as anybody who’s ever tried it knows, the more you write the more you want to write.

* Not one of those big boxes you use to house domesticated, sociable bees in the hope you can steal their honey, but a boarding-house for antisocial solitary bees. None have, as yet, taken up residence, but neverless I always check.

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And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items


Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.

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Time passes

In which FP gets self-reflective


Well, that was August, then.

I’m not sure why I seem to lose interest in writing here every few months. It happens, though: things pass me by and I don’t have anything to say about them. Things have happened, yes, and I’ve ranted about them to people, but the rants haven’t made it into words. Not yet, at any rate.

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Upgrade

In which things are fresher


We’re now running on WordPress 3.0, the very latest hot-off-the-presses version I could find. I think everything works, but haven’t tested everything 100% thoroughly yet, so you never know. The PHP version has been updated, too; I did squelch a couple of bugs that popped up in the home-grown parts of the code when passing PHP v5.2, but I think I managed to get them all. Let me know if you can spot any problems. I even managed to remember to update the copyright date at the same time – only 6 months late there.

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Limbo

In which there’s no internet, so we’re tweeting instead


We’re still stuck in internet-connection limbo at Symbolic Towers, as mentioned a week ago. We’ve got the phone line all wired up, we’ve told our broadband people that our phone line has changed, and now we’re waiting to be Jumpered. A nice chap from BT Openreach,* to finish the job, has to pop down to our local exchange and plug in a jumper, a short bit of wire that connects our phone line to the rest of the universe. Before then, no internet.**

In the meantime, I thought I might mention that a few weeks ago I thought I might get up-to-date with the top trends of 2008; so I set up an account on Twitter. Well, I thought I’d better get around to it before my preferred username was taken; and it is rather easier to update on my phone than this site is. I’m @forestpines on there, posting such exciting things as “ooh, I’m in the library” and “look, a nice photo”. At some point I will wire up the blog and the twitter account together, so everything is nicely linked, my twitter posts appear here, my blog posts automatically appear there, and so on. That, though, will have to wait; indeed, I’ll probably upgrade to WordPress 3 before that point.

* BT Openreach, I’m told, only employs Nice Chaps. They do tend to drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of biscuits, though.

** I’m in our local library right now, in case you were wondering, just like I had to do last time we moved house.

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With Difficulty

In which FP muses on how hard it is to write something with all the distractions the modern world has to offer


There’s one big problem with computers and pervasive connectivity. The problem is: it’s all at your fingertips. Which means, when you sit down to do some work, it’s all too easy to realise that there are other things you’d rather be doing; and there are a lot that can be done there and then.

In a lot of cases that’s straightforward to solve: disconnect yourself. It’s a bit trickier, though, when it comes to writing blog posts. Particularly, the sort of blog posts that need fact-checking, more information, and so on. Once you have to start doing that, you start getting sidetracked down a line of “research” which is very interesting and distracting, but doesn’t really help you with getting your blog post written. The inspiration fades away amid a mass of non-information.

What I’m going to have to do, I think, in order to get this process going properly again, is to make more notes. Get a notebook, and find a place far away from the internet. Hide my phone. Lie back in bed, maybe, and write my posts with pen and paper first. And after that, put all the links in and do the fact-checking, after the text is already down. It all goes back to something I wrote a long time back, wondering if having a Blog Editor would improve the quality of this blog. An independent Blog Editor is highly unlikely to appear, so I have to fulfil both roles myself; but if I do try to explicitly divide writing time and editing time, then maybe much more will get done.

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Strange Loop

In which things get into a circular reference


Things go around in circles. This site has been quiet for a while in the past, more than once, and it will probably happen again in the future at some point. I can’t tell when, but it will probably happen.

Still, a new year is as good a time for a new start as any, even though I try not to believe in arbitrary starting-points. It’s hard to avoid it at this time of year, though: forced to stay away from work, expected to visit the family, exchange gifts, rest for a week and recover ready for the new year’s start. I’ve been staying in and reading one of the books I received for Christmas: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s a long book, a complex book, and I haven’t finished it yet: but its essence is in loops, looping, and self-referentiality. How self-referentiality is necessary, as a minimum, before self-awareness can occur. It seems like an ideal thing to talk about on a blog which has always been highly aware that it’s a blog, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken in enough of the book to write about it yet. “It’s got a lot of equations in it,” said The Mother, giving it to me. It does have, true; it also has some truly awful puns, intertwined and nested ideas, and dialogues between fictional and/or appropriated characters who butt into the discussion on a regular basis.

Funnily enough, a letter came the other day from regular reader E. Shrdlu of Clacton-on-Sea…

The Plain People Of The Internet: Hurrah! We were wondering when that chap would pop up again. We were worried he’d got stuck putting shapes into boxes, or analysing what kind of linoleum he has in his kitchen.

Hush, you. As I was saying, a letter came, from semi-regular reader E. Shrdlu of Clacton-on-Sea:

“Gödel, Escher, Bach” is quite a work to try to emulate, isn’t it? Maybe you should try something simpler. Never mind the parallels between human consciousness, a baroque composer and a 20th-century artist: have you thought about the links between something simpler, like TV ghost stories and the British railway preservation movement? Or maybe: the parallels between the work of Robert Graves and books like “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”. Something nice and straightforward like that.

It’s an interesting idea there. Maybe I should indeed be starting off along those lines. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be writing a critique of a piece of writing I read for the first time a few days ago. It starts like this:

Things go around in circles. This site has been quiet for a while in the past, more than once, and it will probably happen again in the future at some point. I can’t tell when, but it will probably happen.

Still, a new year is as good a time for a new start as any, even though I try not to believe in arbitrary starting-points…

Somehow, I think I might be onto something.

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Recent Search Requests

In which we know what you’re looking for


From the past month or so:

1/64 scale castle. 1/64 scale is also known as “S Gauge” in the model train world. I have some photos of an S gauge model train on here; no castles, though.
addicted to prostitutes grimsby. I’ve seen what Grimsby prostitutes generally, and, well, grim is the word.
describe a seaside town in winter. “Grey” would be a good start, usually.
did horne and corden write there new sketch show?. If they didn’t, they should consider asking for a discount next time.
evening post crash bedminster. The junction of Winterstoke Road and Bedminster Down Road is still covered in flowers and mementos, after a woman died when a car crashed into a stone wall there late one night recently. I should pop down and take photos of it all before it rots away.
finding a deat bat meaning and symbolism. Well, I know what to do when you find a dead bat on your doorstep, if you’re British at least. Its meaning: erm, the cat managed to kill a bat, I think. As for symbolism, I’m at a bit of a loss.
mark bradshaw replacement bedminster surely has to be a bit of wishful thinking, because it’s a couple of years until Bradshaw (one of Bedminster’s city councillors) is up for re-election. He’s recently been tipped as an ideal Bristol Labour leader, despite his reputation for ignoring correspondants and being linked with misleading press releases.
men diamler did a very good performance and DJ set at The Cube on New Years Eve, despite being (by his own admission) the most alcohol-infused act of the evening, as I mentioned at the time. Still, as I said: rather good.
naked forestmen. That’s enough Recent Search Requests, I think.

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