"A word after a word after a word is power" - Margaret Atwood


A blog for readers and writers

A blog about the stories we tell each other and how we tell them...

Saturday, 31 July 2010

America's another country: they do things differently there

Just been reviewed on an American blog devoted to books (it included an excellent plot summary by the way -  not simply a re-arrangement of the blurb on the back cover.) One point that came across, however, was how 'other' A Good Confession felt to an American reader.
Whenever I read British literature, I find myself transported. It seems so foreign to me, even more so than reading the South Asian authors and Middle Eastern authors who I love, perhaps because I always feel like it should feel more similar to my own experience, since they speak the same language. So I’m surprised when I read a story just how different it is.
Click on the title of this post if you want to read the review in full.
I suspect that on this side of the Atlantic we do assume we know America because we're so immersed in American culture through music, film, television and literature. When my sons went to New York for the first time (mid 90s)  aged 6 and 10, they were enchanted by a city they already knew as well as London. Turn the corner into the Rockefeller Centre and yes, that's where Macaulay Culkin was reunited with his Mom in Home Alone, another corner and another cherished film moment - and they weren't even teenagers...
It's an assumption we can't trust though.  I give you my uncle's front door. He lives with his large, loving family in Chicago. A few more blocks and he would be officially in the suburbs but his house is within city limits.  It's a pretty standard American house with a small backyard and and even smaller strip of grass dividing his front porch from the pavement. A couple of years ago he bought a new front door. He didn't order it specially and like his house it is pretty standard.  And it comes with a standard feature - a latch. That was good he said because they were so many of them coming in and out all the time it was a nuisance to have keep getting your key out and unlocking the door. So, during daylight hours it was on the latch. Anyone could just come in and they only locked up when it got dark...
I can't imagine anyone doing that in England, not in the cities or in the countryside. Half a century or more ago front doors might have been left unlocked but no more. And nowhere in the UK can you buy a standard, mass produced front door with a latch....so another of my assumptions was folded up and put away...

Friday, 30 July 2010

How to find an Irish agent and the questions to ask before enrolling on an online writing course

Click on the title of this post and you will be taken to a pretty comprehensive list of publishers and agents in Ireland - one of the great book reading nations of the world.
You may also want to take the opportunity to wander around the Creative Writing Ink site. It offers an international peer feedback service on its discussion forum.  Might be worth dipping a toe in - especially if you can't get to a regular face to face writers workshop.

I see they also offer online courses in creative writing as well as more conventional taught courses in and around the city of Cork.  I'm not able to make a recommendation, but I taught on the the Open College of the Arts fiction and memoir courses for a couple of years. Despite excellent student support and great resources, the drop out rate was high. I've been thinking why that was and come up with these questions to consider before enrolling.
  1. Do you really want to write - or is it a toss up between short stories and Shiatsu? If you are dabbling, don't dabble at arm's length. You need the enthusiasm of an inspiring tutor and the camaraderie of classmates  
  2. Can you meet a deadline without being nagged? Really? Is the date on the calendar enough to get you going even when you're tired, overworked at the work that actually pays, there's a good film on TV, the baby is crying, next door's baby is crying and you are absolutely convinced that every word you have written since age six is absolute rubbish. 
  3. What's stopping you from attending 'real' classes on a regular basis? Right answer is because work or home commitments make conventional day or evening classes impossible. Or because disability or location are a real barrier to fulfilling your writing ambitions. Wrong answer is because it's easier. It's not. Another wrong answer is because you don't fancy going out to class on a cold, damp winter evening.  You don't have to starve in a garret to be a writer but you do have to put some effort in. Or at least most of us do. I met Farahan Zama at a literary conference last year and discovered that he wrote The Marriage for Rich People in the 35 minutes his train journey took every morning. The rest of us have to stuffer just a bit.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Join me on WALK,TALK AND WRITE a creative guided tour of Brighton

This is something different. Local history + a gentle stroll + creative writing. What's not to like...
AUGUST 9th 10am to 12.30
It starts and ends at Brighton Unemployed Centre in Tilbury Place, off Carlton Hill - just by the American Express building. It is part of TARNER STORIES, a project funded by Heritage Lottery that explores an area rich in working class history.
It's a hilly walk - this is Brighton: there's no getting away from that - but the pace is easy and there will be time to stop and stare and share stories. We will hear about Miss Tarner, walk on Victorian red brick pavements, see where a farm was operating in the heart of Brighton only 40 years ago and spot some fine examples of  bungaloosh - a uniquly Brighton building material.
AND I will be setting creative writing exercises along the way and back at the Centre.
I've never done anything like this before - bet you haven't either.
No need to book - just turn up. No need to go to the cash point - it's free. But do get in contact if you want to find out more

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Google is not the only search engine...

....I know, I can hardly believe this myself, but apparently there are things that other search engines do better than Google. Or at least one thing: finding out what  real time (i.e. now) discussions are going on.
If you have ever wondered how a journalist can write with authority about the topic the country was tweeting about yesterday afternoon this is how - they looked it up on collecta.com  
Right now - at this very moment -  the hot topics are
  • Inception
  • The Tour de France
  • Lindsay Lohan
  • Oil Seep
  • Steve Jobs

Sunday, 18 July 2010

More about titles

Since writing about The Third Man and the titles of other political autobiographies, I contemplated just how hard it is to get the title right.  I've discovered that Lulu - the American self publishing company - now have a programme to analyse your chosen novel title. It claims that
for the first time in literary history, you can put your title to the scientific test and find out whether it has what it takes for bestseller success.
A GOOD CONFESSION apparently has a 26.3% chance of being a bestseller.  
Bonfire of the Vanities also has a 26.3% chance and The Importance of Being Ernest notched up 26.3%
Sensing that there could be a pattern here (i.e. that everything has about a 1 in 4 chance of being a runaway success according to the wildly optimistic Lulu),  I put in Lolita.  Nabokov's masterpiece only has 20.1% chance of making the big time.
Click on the title of this post to try out the site.

My favourite all time title I think has to be THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD (an Andy Garcia film with a great plot). It scored just 10.2%

Peas and words and the stories they tell...

If you love words - and if you are a writer it's a marriage not an affair -  I recommend Michael Quinion's website http://www.worldwidewords.org 
Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter and every Saturday you will be entertained, educated and intrigued. This week I not only learned a new word but I gained an insight into another time and another way of life.
Ever heard of PEA-WET?
It's a term used in Lancashire, specifically in the Wigan area, for the green liquid that runs off tinned mushy peas. (I hate peas. Always have. always will. I know that like eggs they are nature's convenience food - and like eggs they even come in their own wrapping - but I will never be converted. Mushy peas are the work of the devil and if you don't know what they are guard your ignorance. It's a place you don't want to go...). Sorry I digress...PEA-WET is a poor man's gravy poured over a portion of chips (or, as I would say, ruining a portion of chips). PEA-WET AND
SCRAPS was a treat for poor children, the scraps being fragments of batter from the fish fryer.
You could write a story around that one detail couldn't you? The smell of the chip shop on a Saturday night, the street light reflected in the glass and chrome...crunching into the golden batter...the heat of the newspaper bundle and the cold of the night...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

WRITE or DIE -- the cure to writer's block

I've just discovered an amazing website that forces you to write.
You type in how many words to want to write over what period (dipping my toe in I said 300 words in 10 minutes - actually did 218 in14.5 which is not at all bad for me and it was from a standing start. I had fully intended to dip into Facebook and then write up the action plan from Friday morning's meeting and there I was typing a  prison scene).
The website nags you with loud classical music to keep you going (and perhaps other things I have yet to discover...you can opt for an evil mode).
Brilliant psychology....
There is a free online version and a desktop one that costs $10.
Deadlines are a piece of cake from now on.
Click on the title of this post to go to WRITE OR DIE. Try it and let me know how you get on.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Puns and Politicians: Borrowed lines and Broken Promises

TITLES ARE HARD TO GET RIGHT. A few, rare times they drop from the sky before the writing begins, but usually they are the result of a mind changing, cringe making, brain storming process that ends in choosing the one you dislike least...
I wonder what discussions Mandelson had with his publishers before coming up with the title for his autobiography The Third Man. It is taken, of course, from Graham Greene's story and today Boyd Tonkin writing in The Independent said that he wasn't sure why the politician...

"chooses on the cover of his testimony to recall a film and novella dominated by a shadowy crook who makes little children die in agony thanks to his trade in toxic remedies."
And ends up in a sewer...
Here's my pick of political autobiography titles (and inclusion has absolutely nothing to do with the views expressed within...).
1) Free Radical by Vince Cable (Always like witty, pithy puns but time has a way of putting a new twist on them...)
2) Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams
3) I'm Not the Only One  George Galloway borrowing a line from John Lennon's Imagine.
4) Mr Galloway goes to Washington - I haven't looked it up but I presume that's from the 30s Gary Cooper film Mr Dee Goes to Washington. Saw it on TV as a child - the little guy taking the big guys on and winning...lip trembling, heart thumping stuff...
5) Choose your Weapons...what a brave spit-in-your-eye challenge ...disappointed to find it isn't Douglas Hurd's autobiography, but the title of his history of 200 years of British foreign secretaries. He called his autobiography Memoirs. That's not really trying...
6) Let the People Decide by left wing Labour MP by Dennis Canavan
7) In My Own Time by Jeremy Thorpe because it doesn't even hint at the Liberal leader's scandal ridden secret life....

Did Charlie Haughey, the former Irish taoiseach, ever write his autobiography?
Haven'been able to find one but I've discovered that Aongus Collins has written his cartoon biography.  The respected historian T. Ryle Dwyer has written the biography of two taoiseachs: Jack Lynch and Charlie. Jack's is called Nice Fellow and Charlie's...Short Fellow. Ouch!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

First Lines literary quiz

It's the end of term and time for a literary quiz. Here is an example of some of the questions I inflicted on students over the last few weeks.
The following are all first lines of novels (scroll down for the answers). Five points for the title, five points for the author.
(1) It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
(2) I thought I'd been to Africa. Told all my class I had.
(3) I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.
(4) Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery
(1) 1984 (five points) George Orwell (five points)
(2)  Small Island (five points) Andrea Levy (five points)
(3)  Slumdog Millionaire (five points) Vikas Swarup (five points). Original book title Q&A (five points)
(4)  Da Vinci Code Dan Brown (minus ten points...that man owes me two hours of my time)


I'm part of an exciting new project that launches on Thursday afternoon at  Brighton Unemployed Centre in the heart of Brighton.
We are being funded by Heritage Lottery to explore and research the past and present of Tarner (scroll down to see the map) through oral history, film, photography and creative writing.  

You can find out more by coming along on Thursday to Brighton Unemployed Centre in Tilbury Place, just off Carlton Hill, near the American Express building. 
The open afternoon runs from 1pm (stay for a filling vegan lunch for £1.50) until 4 pm when the Centre closes.
I'm writer in residence and right now I'm planning an August creative walk around the area - in the company of a local historian and an experienced healthwalks guide.
Early September there will be an one day workshop that is aimed at absolute beginners

And from the autumn the Centre's creative writing group will be working on a short drama that will roll out around Christmas time to local schools and audiences.
Nothing's written in stone but at the moment we are thinking of an Under the Milk Wood style production, telling the story of the local area through the voices of our near neighbours, the animals (and the trees and the flint walls...who knows).
It will be a steep learning curve on how to work collaboratively and still produce a drama that we all feel proud of, but the group is such a wonderful creative force that I feel very positive. 

Anyway this is a Brighton Unemployed Centre project, with the thinnest of resources they always manage to do wonderful things. 
If you live in Brighton and want to get involved do get in touch.  And if  Tarner has ever been home to you - now or in the past - do please get in touch. There's a slice of local history to be written and you can be part of it.

Monday, 5 July 2010

International Flash Fiction Competition

Another FLASH FICTION competition and this one welcomes entries from around the world provided they are written in English and accompanied by the hefty £9 entry fee.
Still BISCUIT publishing company are offering  a very respectable £1000 (approximately $1,500 US dollars; €1,100 Euros) in prize money OR your own collection published (short stories or flash fiction I presume, but they also say it could be a novella)  plus £350 and 75 copies of your book - the winner chooses money or honour and glory. 
(75 is a lot of review copies: it means you could mount an effective promotional campaign.) 

Word count: 250 minimum - 750 maximum
Deadline: 14th September 2010

For more information - and all the rules - click on the title of this post.