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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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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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Chauvinism

In which we are shocked by vintage sexism


If you get involved in some hobbies, some fields of interest, you have to get used to the fact that you’ll end up finding yourself alongside older men with unpalatable views. If you like trains, for example, you will sometimes find yourself alongside elderly trainspotters who haven’t yet worked out that there might be a link between “being single” and “not washing”. You get used to hearing them espousing rather reactionary viewpoints, such as “we should send them all back to their own countries”, and so on.

Nevertheless, occasionally, something comes along which makes you think: I can’t believe they said that. Or, in this case: I can’t believe they printed that. I was reading a book I picked up recently in a charity shop: Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel From Old Photographs by Jeoffry Spence, a 1980s reprint of a 1970s book, and came across this delightful passage in the introduction. It starts off with saying how Edwardian railway timetables were far too complicated for women to understand, and goes on:

But even today, with so many regular-interval services and absence of complexities, there is something rather irritating to us chauvinistic males about the sight of a woman standing haughtily in the circulating area of a big station, telling us firmly what time the train goes, which platform, where to change, and even the time of arrival at the destination; it makes a bad impression on our younger children.

I’m sorry? It “makes a bad impression” for children to be allowed to see a woman advising a man? To see a woman having responsibility? To see a woman speaking firmly? Or, indeed, all of the above? Even for something written in the late 70s, that’s a bit much to see in print.

A bit of research suggests that Spence was born in 1915, so was probably in his early 60s when he wrote that. He died* in ’92, at 77 or so. Getting a bit elderly when he wrote those words, then, you could argue. But I don’t think that’s an excuse, given that feminism was already alive and well when he was growing up; and that there are plenty of people of his generation who weren’t such terrible bigots. Thirty years later, it comes across as a shockingly sexist piece of writing. The worrying thing is: I’m sure there are still men today, lurking in the backwoods and writing down the numbers of trains, who would probably still agree with him.

* Assuming I’ve found the right man, but the unusual spelling helps

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Road trips

In which we discuss similarities between books and blogging


Last week, in the last Book I Haven’t Read post, I mentioned By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal, and predicted that – in contrast to the book I was actually writing about – I’d have BHOBC rattled through and quickly finished off.

Well, indeed, I have: it’s read, finished, and back on the bookshelf now. Prediction correct. And, as I said before, I think it was easy to read precisely because it mirrors the way I think. To recap: it’s written as a road trip, during which the writer muses on anything, really, that he finds of interest as he passes. A nearby manor house reminds him of a railway engine named after it, which prompts him to muse on railway engine names in general. The journey from Anglesey to the mainland prompts him to recount the history of the Menai bridges,* and a trip to Hay-on-Wye leads to the history of inn signs, coats-of-arms, and many other things besides.

It’s a book of associations, and a celebration of associative thought. I’m sure that it didn’t actually take place as a single trip, and that when Crystal sat down to write the book he didn’t just muse on whatever came to mind; it’s too carefully structured and crafted for that. But it does read as if that’s what he’s doing. It made me think, moreover, of the way I write this blog, which isn’t at all carefully structured and crafted. But, as I move through the world, I see things which spark my brain alight and give me something to think about; and this blog is the result. It’s full of rambling and digression, but, rambling and digression with a common thread behind it, the thread being the things I encounter.**

I was thinking about this as I got towards the end of BHOBC. So, I was quite amused when I reached Crystal’s thoughts on blogging.

[Blogging] is writing which is totally spontaneous, put up on a screen without the intervention of an editor or proof-reader, so it is much more like ‘speaking in print’ than anything before. And it shows many of the properties of spoken language, such as loosely constructed sentences and unexpected changes of direction. Bit like this book, really…

David Crystal has a blog.*** He started writing it at the end of 2006; he said, as a sort of FAQ page. Given that BHOBC was published in ’07, though, I’d assume that he started blogging either a few months after the book had been written or when it was in the final stages of completion. I’m wondering if writing that book was one of the other things, though, that prompted him to start writing a blog. Because, really, they’re often exercises in a similar sort of vein. Spotting something that interests you, and telling other people about it.

* from building up to burning down, you could say

** Which is all a bit of a longwinded and pretentious way of saying: I write about whatever’s on my mind.

*** Which I linked to above, so you may well already realise this.

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Goose chase

In which we get pessimistic about self-expression


Have spent today on a wild goose chase around the county. In one sense: a bad thing, because nothing productive at all got done. In another: a good thing, noone could bother me,* so I had some time to think to myself, and plot things. I started writing a film treatment in my head; the challenge will be to get it on paper in some way that resembles my mind’s-eye view. Which is hard. It reminds me of a passage on writing by Tibor Fischer:

The ideas, the visions that turned his ignition were exciting but it was like taking a pebble out of a river where it gleamed and watching it became matt and boring. Pataki tried to splash with ink the invisible men that only he could see, so that others could detect their outlines, but he always missed and was merely left with a mess

(from Under The Frog, p32 in the Penguin edition)

Someone recently searched for: “how to build a souterrain”. Which is an interesting idea. As far as I know, noone’s tried to build a souterrain for a millennium or two, but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a go, if you have enough land. You can go for cut-and-cover fairly easily: dig a banana-shaped trench, maybe about twenty or thirty feet long, down to about eight feet or so in depth,** and pop a roof of some kind, probably turf or thatch, over the top. In soil it’s probably a lot safer than a shallow tunnel, unless you really know what you’re up to. In rock, it’s a lot of work.

Another thing that’s been searched for recently: “feeling absolutely drained of all energy”. I couldn’t agree more. And so to bed.

* “Sorry, the battery on my hands-free headset has run out”

** I hope you realise I’m pulling these measurements off the top of my head, rather than looking up archaeological reports and so on.

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Laziness

In which we pretend to break something


I’ve noticed I’ve been a bit lax updating recently – if you look on the sidebar, you’ll notice these past few months have had far fewer posts than before. Back in January I said I was going to going to try to update every day. As you can see, I haven’t been managing it lately.

“Why do you have to update if you don’t have anything to say?” Someone asked recently. I feel I should, though. Previous attempts at creating diaries have always faded away due to laziness; when I started this site, the intention was to try to stick to one post per day. No more, no less, and the rhythm would stop it fading away. I don’t think there’s any risk of that happening quite yet, but I am going to try to put more effort in.

Big Dave is still up to something – he’s been up to something all week, I’m sure, but he’s not saying what it is yet. Lots of phone calls that he won’t take in front of people.

We were both up to something the other day, to be honest – we found a rather good screensaver* that simulates, very closely, a computer that has crashed so horribly that it won’t start up. Dave, of course, couldn’t resist installing it on the PC of someone who recently played a joke on him. He waited until we knew the chap was away from his desk, installed it remotely, then sat back and waited for the phone call.

The funny thing, though, is that he also installed it on his own PC, so he could see what it does. So now, every time he comes back to his desk,*** he has a millisecond of “Shit! Aargh!” before remembering that it’s his screensaver. Our fear of blue screens is that ingrained, he can’t help it.

* It’s from Sysinternals, a very good site if you have to be a Windows geek, with all sorts of useful semi-official system tools. It used to be independant, but was absorbed** by Microsoft this summer.

** or maybe “adsorbed” is a better word.

*** after answering one of those mysterious phone calls he keeps getting.

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Coded message

In which FP opens his heart


Feelings are strange things.

When I started this blog, I was hoping it would make me a better writer. And it has. Except when it comes to my deepest feelings. I’m still terrible at putting them into words. I clam up. I can feel things in my body, a warm glow spreading outwards from my heart, but I can’t describe them. I can’t tell people just how they make me feel, partly because I can’t find the words, partly because I’m scared they’ll run away.

If I ever look you in the eyes and tell you how you really make me feel, that means you’re a very special person. Noone I’ve met, yet, has touched me enough to make me break those barriers down.

Surprisingly, I’m not feeling very scared at the moment.

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Fiction, this time

In which we plan a story


Talking of ghost stories, I dreamed an interesting one a few nights ago. I liked it so much, in fact, that I rather fancy working it up into a proper story.

No doubt the plot is one that’s been covered many times before; but there aren’t really very many ghost-story plots that haven’t been well worked-over. The way it came out in my dream – which was of someone telling the story, rather than of the story itself – it was a version of one of the most frequently-used plots of all, the Disappearing Fellow-Traveller.* However, it was, well, rather inverted. I don’t want to say any more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you if I ever do manage to finish it.

* At least one classic story of the Disappearing Fellow-Traveller genre made it, in a retold version, into an anthology of supposedly true ghost stories. I can’t remember many details at all about it; but it concerned someone who got chatting to a fellow-traveller in a railway carriage, and found that the stranger was a friend of the people the traveller was going to visit. On mentioning him at the destination, of course, he turned out to have died some time earlier. I really should work this up and look up the names of the writers and books involved. I’ve got a feeling the “true” book was Railway Ghosts And Phantoms by W B Herbert, but I’m not at all sure.

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Month

In which I talk about the ease (or otherwise) of writing


When I started this site, I had a definite plan in mind. Write one entry per day, every day, even if it ends up being a pointless single-sentence post. Not forever, but just to see how long I could keep it going for. Just to prove to myself that when I say: “oh, I don’t have anything to write about,” it’s not true.*

Well, I’ve kept that going for a month now, and it really hasn’t been too hard. Some days it’s been easy to think of something to say; some days have been harder; but for the past month I’ve written something, on this site, every single day. I didn’t think I’d be able to last this long without skipping a day or two, and I’m still not sure if it will be very long before I do drop to only four or five posts per week; but I’m going to try to keep to one-post-per-day for as long as I can.

To tell the truth, I know it won’t be long before I skip a day or two, because at the end of this week I’m going off for a long weekend. As I’m not confident I know how to do timed posts yet – and if I was, I’d have to come up with three days’ posts in advance – there’s going to be a break at the weekend. Being away from a computer doesn’t really count, though.

* of course, “oh, I don’t have anything interesting to write about” might be more truthful.

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