26 April, 2013

Quotable Friday (8)

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves.

This week I'm going to quote from a book I'm still reading - Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. I'd read a couple of Rushdie's books in the past and, although the language is amazingly beautiful, I never really got on with them. I found them very hard work to read. My husband describes reading his books as "you get to the end of a sentence having no idea what it means, but you get to the end of a chapter knowing what's happened". I think that's a good description.

Luka and the Fire of Life is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories and they are something completely different because they're children's books. You get all the genius of Salman Rushdie's way with words, with none of the obscurity. They contain a simply marvellous world of stories and magic, the Mists of Time, glumfish, mechanical telepathic hoopoe birds and P2C2Es (processes too complicated to explain). Only taking two or three hours to read, they are funny and an absolute joy. Here's a sample for you...

" In general, however, the two brothers, Haroun and Luka, rarely quarrelled and, in fact, got on unusually well. An eighteen-year age gap had turned out to be a good place to dump most of the problems that can sometimes crop up between brothers, all those little irritation that make the older brother accidentally knock the kid's head against a stone wall or put a pillow over his sleeping face by mistake, or persuade the younger brother that it's a good idea to fill the big fellow's shoes with sweet, sticky mango pickle, or to call the big guy's new girlfriend by a different girlfriend's name and then pretend it was just a slip of the tongue. So none of that happened. [...] Luka uncomplicatedly adored his older brother, and thought he looked like a big bear - a bit like Dog the bear, in fact - or perhaps, like a comfortable stubbly mountain with a wide grin near the top."

23 April, 2013

A New Favourite Book

I have found a new gem on my bookshelves. My new discovery might not be a Booker Prize winner, but it's provided me with literally minutes of entertainment. It is the rather gorgeous General and Social Letter Writing by A. G. Elliot. Published by Paperfront in 1956, I'm not even sure how it found its way on to my shelves, but I'm glad it did. Part of its charm for me is that a non-fiction book written in 1950's English reminds me of the way my dad speaks. In fact, I own a letter which my father sent to his parents when he was a young man and it sounds so similar, it's really very charming.

This book not only contains letter-writing tips on style, thickness of paper, correct forms of address and punctuation, but gives sound advice on all sorts of letters from apologies to acceptances, from complaining to government officials to giving references. It also contains examples of many different types of letter. Here are some examples from Mr. Elliot, to get you through your Tuesday afternoon:

Should you need to break off an engagement with John, you could perhaps write to him beginning like this:
"I hardly know how to start this letter, because it is written on a matter about which I never imagined I should have to write. John, dear, will you ever forgive me if I ask you to release me from my engagment to marry you. My heart is broken on your account, because I do know how much you love me." (This letter goes on to explain how Howard has been "motoring me home" on Fridays after work and how "I have always been attracted to him", which seems too much information, but then, I'm not the expert.)

Should John then set fire to your coat in a jealous rage, do not allow the insurance company to fob you off with a measley offer... "Do you consider your offer of £3 against a coat worth £10 is fair treatment? I did not claim the larger sum with any intention of entering into negotiation for its reduction, because the coat had only been worn twice and was obviously still worth its original value, or within a few shillings of it." You tell 'em A. G.

If you and Howard elope to where John can't find you and end up on honeymoon, you may like to write a postcard home with such entertaining details of your ski-ing trip such as, "They make everything very easy for the visitor going up even to the extent of a special "lift" which takes you to the mountain-top and which I was delighted to use."

And when you return to set up home, you mustn't be afraid to ask favours from your new neighbours... "After much hesitation, because of natural British reluctance to ask favours I suppose, I am taking the liberty of writing to inquire if you would be so kind as to let me shoot the rabbits on your farm."

There are many more charming examples of letters in this book (check out the pictures!), from being "thrilled" to receive a gift of a dozen eggs, to what to do if you are a "girl who has met a young man on holiday whom she likes but who, although friendly, has shown no special interest in her. She rightly feels if he could get to know her better he might one day fall in love." I especially love the jaunty little jokes and scattering of exclamation marks with which his letters are punctuated.

Do you love writing letters? I've been writing to my best friend from nursery school for 20 years now, ever since we were cruelly torn apart from each other when her family moved house when we were six years-old. To me, getting personal letters in the post always brightens my day. How about you?

19 April, 2013

Quotable Friday (7)

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves.

This week, a quotation from that great Russian epic War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I read the novel last year and found this passage really interesting. Even though it appears in the middle of  a very long book, the second I read it I felt as if I'd stumbled across what Tolstoy was really trying to say. The other 560 000 (or so) words are a story wrapped around this passage - or so it seemed to me. I've never felt so able to pinpoint a central idea so clearly in any other novel.

When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?

Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth, is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it. Equally right or wrong is he who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, and he who says that an undermined hill weighing a million tons fell because the last navvy struck it for the last time with his mattock. In historic events the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with event itself.

Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary, and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity."

16 April, 2013

Reasons I Can't Be A Writer

Reasons I can't be a writer:
  • I am not struggling to make ends meet
  • I am not filthy rich
  • I don't drink wine
  • I don't drink coffee
  • I don't drink tea
  • I don't write before dawn
  • I don't write late at night
  • I don't write every day
  • I don't forget to eat
  • I am not depressed
  • I am not melancholic
  • My childhood was happy
  • My adulthood is happy
  • I don't feel misunderstood by the world
  • Science fascinates me more than art
  • Writing is not the most important thing in my life

Reasons I might be a writer:
  • I write stuff. Sometimes people read it. Sometimes they don't.

What a boring world it would be if all writers were really what we're expected to be. In fact, wouldn't it be dull if all engineers were the same, or all teachers, or all market traders, mothers, newsagents and firemen? Here's to you my fellow writers, for all the things you are that I'm not, and all the things we have in common!

"Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one." Eleanor Roosevelt

12 April, 2013

Quotable Friday (6)

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves.

Today I'm doing something a little different. Instead of one quotation, here is a selection I've come across over the years about the art of writing itself.

My favourite, from a letter written by John Steinbeck: "If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it."

From Sebastian Faulks On Fiction: "A child first marvels at the invention of a story; he doesn’t ask who Rumpelstiltskin was modelled on; he just loves it that a wishing chair can fly or animals can talk. In adult fiction, the element of wonder has somehow been lost; some readers seem to find it frightening to think a writer can conjure people, scenes and feelings from a void. Yet to me that is a novelist’s single saleable skill, his USP."

This one from Robert A. Heinlein makes me laugh: "Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."

Something rather sweet, from, Pulitzer Prize winner, Jeffery Eugenides: "On their best days, writers all over the world are winning Pulitzers, all alone in their studios with no one watching."

And finally, some encouragement for those who feel inexpert sometimes, from W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are."

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of quotations about writing. Which are your favourite?

[I wrote this post some days ago, then logged on this morning to find my wonderful fellow writer Derek Thompson has done a post on his blog today about some of the one-line thoughts on writing he's jotted down in his notebook over the years. Clearly it is a day to think about writing! Go check it out...]

08 April, 2013

3 into 1 Anthology

We've all been there: you buy a book and when it arrives in the post, turns out... you're in it!

Last year, at some point when I needed a fun and short project to stretch my brain in between novel drafts, I entered the 3 into 1 Short Story Competition. This was a contest, judged by authors Michael Dobbs and Adele Geras, to write a story which linked a black queen chess piece, a bunch of fresh flowers and a 10 pound note.

I decided to write something in a different style/genre than my usual stuff. I often do something experimental between novel drafts, which is fun but usually means the stories aren't as slick as they might be. Sure enough, I wasn't a prize-winner. I was a little disappointed, of course, but not awfully surprised and I'd really enjoyed writing a bit of humour for once in my entry The Final Observations of George Postlethwaite.

Fast-forward a few months and the anthology of stories was produced. My blogging friend Dan Purdue had won second prize (which I was very pleased about in a teeth-gritted kind of way!) and so I decided to buy the anthology. Dan's a good writer and I enjoy his short stories, so his presence in the book - coupled with the famous judges - assured me this would be an anthology worth reading, as well as being a good literary way to donate to charity (the competition and anthology are in aid of The Arthrogryposis Group).

Well, imagine my surprise last week when I received the anthology to find The Final Observations of George Postlethwaite in it! I knew there had been a lot of entries so I had assumed my story just hadn't cut the mustard this time. The judges said they had picked the top 50 fairly easily, but then had trouble whittling that down to a shortlist of their top 20. I had no idea I'd even made the 50 cut, let alone the 20. So that was a lovely surprise - to get another small publishing credit to my name.

I'm saving the anthology for holiday reading next month, but if you're looking for a new collection of short stories to read and fancy supporting a charity to the tune of £10 (including P&P) you can buy the anthology here. I have to admit, flicking through my story I've spotted a handful of formatting issues/typos that aren't in my original manuscript, but in general it looks like a well-produced book (and I'd rather they used the money for the charity than for multiple rounds of proof-reading anyway). I like the snazzy cover and it's nice and thick - a lot of charity anthologies contain very few pages for a lot of money and rely purely on goodwill, this one works out at only £0.55 per story!

05 April, 2013

Quotable Friday (5)

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves. No deep thoughts, no fancy attempts to unpick hidden meanings – just snippets of our beautiful language I’ve come across that I’ve fallen in love with. I’d love to know what you think of them. 

This week's quotation is from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and was recommended to me by my wonderful father-in-law. Like many quotations that tickle my fancy, this one is just a perfect bit of characterisation. Drawing characters is hard - I'm in awe of anyone who can do it with originality and flair! Catch-22 was one of a few books I've read where I loved some of the sentences and paragraphs but really didn't like the book as a whole. I know I'm in a minority there though!

“Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

02 April, 2013

My Writing Room

In the past on this blog I have posted photos of the view from my writing room. It's really rather pretty. I don't want to create a false impression that my writing environment is all clean and crisp and perfect however, so welcome to my writing room...

 When my husband got a new desk, I nabbed his old one so I could have one desk for my computer and one for writing by hand. Luxury! My walls/doors have the remnants of past writing project plans on them - I like to keep them around me like old friends. I also use the room for storage, very occasionally playing my violin and for doing some exercise - Pilates being my usual choice.

When my husband got a new screen (spotting a pattern here?), he gave me his old one, set up vertically for optimal text reading. If I'm writing a new draft, I'll put the old one on the laptop and read from that while touch-typing on to the big screen - no switching between tabs for me! Also in shot: two different temperature drinks of water, thesaurus and Moleskine notebook with notes for my current novel (a present from a friend - I'm not usually that posh when it comes to notebooks).

I like to keep a reminder of some wonderful people around me, so on my windowsill are a photo of my parents and siblings at Buckingham Palace in 2005 when Dad got his CBE (I was in an A-level exam that day), and a photo from the late-1940s of my Dad with his parents and a copy of the book Fuzzypeg Goes to School.

A selection of books on my shelf, including several random ones people have found in charity shops and bought for me. Not sure why The Book of Firsts ('the stories behind the outstanding breakthroughs of the modern world') is up here, as the rest of my general reference books are elsewhere, and I should probably get rid of the multiple copies of The Writers' and Artist' Yearbook, but I'm attached to my old copy! The papers and notebooks on the left are old writing projects, rejection letters, idea books and notes from when I taught myself Teeline shorthand.

And finally, for those interested, the view from my writing room today, looks like this. But never fear, living at a height of 200m on the edge of Dartmoor means that pretty often, the view looks like...


What are your favourite features of the place you work? What is there about it that would tell an outside observer what your job is (or that you're a writer, if you are indeed a writer)?