27 August, 2013

Book Spine Poems

Last week, I got happily distracted from my writing by looking at the Twitter entries into the Waterstones Gravity Spine Poem competition. I won't go into details of the competition as you can read about here, but I wanted to share the concept with you.

Spine Poems are poems written by stacking books you own so that when you read the titles they form a story. This isn't a new idea - I've seen a few friends post pictures of their poems on Twitter in the past - but it's a rather charming one. I'm no poet, but when I saw the great work going on, I decided to have a go, and it seemed to me that "poem" was quite a loose term here - some entries were highly poetic, others just told a story in a way that may or may not be thought of as poetry. I think my attempts definitely fall into this latter category!

I had so much fun I intend to "write" some more spine poems soon, but for now, here are my first attempts at poems/stories.

1) The Human Story.

2) Love.

3) Not so much a poem as a piece of flippancy.

Have you ever tried this? Give it a go and let me know what stories you can create from your books either by commenting below or e-mailing me a photograph (see About Me page for contact details). I might do a little series of spine poems and I am happy to include other people's creations (with links to their blogs) as well as my own.

23 August, 2013


In the wake of Elmore Leonard's death the internet is falling over itself to highlight his famous list of writing rules. I won't list them all here, as so many other people have done so already. Pop over to the Strictly Writing blog if you do want to read the full list - they are a great starting point for any writer.

A side-effect of the Leonard-mania is that I learned a new word: Bangorrhea. I'm sure some of you will have heard of it already, perhaps even suffer from it yourself, but it was new to me. Bangorrhea is the condition of overusing exclamation marks. One of Elmore Leonard's rules is to use no more than two or three exclamation marks/points in a whole novel, and I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who said that using an exclamation mark was akin to laughing at your own joke.

I sway both ways on this one. In my casual correspondance - e-mails, blog comments, facebook posts etc. - I use exclamation marks a lot. In my "proper" writing I try to use them as little as possible. This BBC article explaining bangorrhea, sums up how I feel about the least sophisticated of our punctuation marks nicely:

Many of those "suffering" from bangorrhea would argue that exclamation marks are an attempt to achieve lightness of tone or emotional emphasis.
"See you there!" - in response to an invitation to a party - implies enthusiasm about attending. "See you there." merely states that you will be there. It could just as well be a rendezvous by the gallows as a joyous social occasion.

 Over the last few years, I have been whittling down my use of exclamation marks - having been taught in school that they are a superb! way! to create! drama! I'm not down to two or three per 100 000 words, but I can usually get through a short story without insulting my readers by adding them for emphasis (it should be obvious if your character is saying something with emphasis, loudly or in a light-hearted manner without you telling everyone with a !). After a first draft of a novel I probably have something more like one every 2000-3000 words, but I'd hope to cull this by the final version to maybe one every 10 000. Well, I'm working on it, anyway. How about you?

20 August, 2013

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

Do you ever recycle the best parts of your past writing into new works?

I have a short story hanging around my computer at the moment which, after months of tinkering, I'm finally happy with. I don't think it's my strongest concept or plot - it's not the next Bridport winner - but I have a huge affection for it and I think it has a chance of getting somewhere in a smaller competition maybe. I have a bit of a dilemma though. Some of the writing within the story - the individual sentences and paragraphs - are some of my best bits of work. The writing and the story are sort of on different levels.

So, dear readers, do I enter it into something small and if (very much an if!) it wins a prize accept that it's going to be read by a handful of people then get filed away forever? OR, do I scrap the story and keep the writing for use in something with a better concept and plot? Or, is it possible to do both?

I know some writers write short stories that later turn into full novels, or that are character studies for their novel-in-progress. That sort of re-using old work seems fair enough. Reducing the elements of a short bit of fiction down to a central idea, then using that again, also seems fine to me. After all, my first novel is essentially a developed version of four failed short stories I never managed to get how I wanted! But what about recycling whole sentences, or even passages from semi-successful work?

Imagine you've written the best description of a thunderstorm you possibly could, in the middle of a short story. It's creative and interesting and avoids cliches, and yet isn't pretentious or out of place. Your story wins a competition, gets published online and read by a couple of hundred people. Some months later you're writing a novel and a storm comes up (hey, you have a thing about storms, don't blame me). Do you use your amazing description, perhaps edited very slightly, or do you settle for something you don't love as much but is original?

Is it a case of "my work my rules"? Or are there situations where this would never be acceptable? I'd be interested to know your thoughts.

14 August, 2013

Literally Changing the Definition of Words

Image from Wikipedia
In the news this week, it was announced that the Oxford English Dictionary has updated the definition of the word 'literally' to include being a word "used for emphasis". I'm not sure why this is in the news this week as, apparently, this change happened some time ago, but the change make me figuratively die inside.

I know it's the OED's responsibility to keep a record of the English language as it evolves, so this was probably the right thing to do. I still don't like it though. It's so difficult to get the balance right between letting a language evolve (after all we don't speak in the same way people did 1000, 500 or even 100 years ago) and not caring about how a language is used, isn't it? One of the most commented-on posts on this blog was about grammar peeves - it's something people feel strongly about.

I know I have lost the battle to persuade people NOT to use 'invite' as noun ("I'll pop the invite in the post"). I even accept that I am a total hypocrite for steadfastly sticking to 'invitation' in this case, but often using 'quote' when I should really say 'quotation' ("I read a really great quote the other day") - which is exactly the same error. I do try to use 'quotation' but 'quote' often slips out when I'm not looking.

So what do you think? Are the OED right to upgrade 'literally', or should they be encouraging us to stamp out such sloppy use of language? I think maybe I'm with the presenter/journalist James Naughtie who, after hearing the news on the Today Programme (one of the UK's top current affairs programmes in the mornings) said something along the lines of, "It may be acceptable, but it still sounds stupid."

09 August, 2013

Quotable Friday (15)

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.

Recently, I've been dipping into a book called 'Landscape into Literature'. It's an anthology, edited by KayDunbar, of short essays by writers on the subject of landscape and how it fits into the things they read and write. It's a lovely little book - a celebration of (mostly) British literature and countryside. The thing that struck me most though, was the description of one of the contributors, Ronald Blythe.

These are his own words and they are very simple, and yet there is something beautiful about them. It's perhaps my favourite single line of characterisation ever - perhaps because I feel as if it describes me better than I could ever describe myself.

"He longed to be lost but he couldn't bear not to be found."

05 August, 2013

Team Zodiac!

Thank-you to everyone who responded to last week's post about a guest blog series I'm planning. I was overwhelmed to have so many volunteers! Taurus was particularly popular. I'm really excited to read all of your flash fictions, poems and mini-essays based on the signs of the zodiac and at the great mix of people we have, from best-selling children's authors to flash fiction specialists, people who were at my wedding to people I've never spoken to before.

Here is the list of participants:

  • Aries - Iain Pattison
  • Taurus - Alicia Myers
  • Gemini - Dan Purdue
  • Cancer - Simon P Clark
  • Leo - Martyn Beardsley
  • Virgo - Alicia Rades
  • Libra - Anna Lickley
  • Scorpio - Derek Thompson
  • Sagittarius - Helen
  • Capricorn - Jenny Hickson
  • Aquarius - Kirsten-Valerie
  • Pisces - Joe Hickson

So, here's how it's going to work. If you could let me know as soon as possible when you think you are going to be able to finish your piece for the blog, either by commenting on this post or by e-mailing me (details at the bottom). Then, when I have about half of the pieces finished and ready I will start running the series, one piece a week if possible, under the label 'zodiac blog series'.

When you send me your work (or beforehand if you won't be able to write your piece for a while) please also send me as much as you can of the following:
  • a photograph of yourself
  • a short biography - three to five sentences is fine - saying who you are, what you do, how long you've been writing etc. etc. You can add an extra sentence saying why you chose your sign, or what inspired your piece of writing etc. too.
  • a shorter biography - one line summary of who you are (if you're not sure about this I'll write you one myself from the other biography you send)
  • any links you want people to have to your blog, website, social media pages, publications, amazon listings etc. etc. Basically send up to five links showing people where they can find out more about you. They don't have to be only writing links.

The idea is that I will create a new page on this blog for the series. Right from the start - if you send me the information in time - I will put a list of all the participants up on that page along with your photograph, one-line biography and a link to your blog/website if you have one. Then I can add links to your stories/poems/essays once they've been posted.

I think that's it! Unless you specifically ask for me to disable them, encouraging or constructive comments will be encouraged on each post. Tell me if you want readers to know that you're new to writing or you've never written a poem before or anything like that (only if true!). It'd be great to support each other with comments and sharing links to other people's stories on Twitter/ Facebook etc.

Let me know if you have any questions either here or by e-mail. If you have already e-mailed me in the past feel free to use whichever e-mail you have for me already. Otherwise start off with this one:
chloe [@] wordsyourway [.] co [.] uk
I may reply from my personal address - I just don't like to broadcast it on the web - and you are welcome to use that one from then onwards.

Thanks again and happy writing!

02 August, 2013

Putting a Face to the Money

[First up, can I say a huge thank-you to everyone who responded to my post asking for guest writers earlier this week. Next week, I'll put up some info on what to send to me and where to send it!]

The Bank of England recently announced that the new face of British £10 notes is going to be Jane Austen. If you are in the UK, you cannot possibly have avoided this news story, but for my American friends, let me summarise...

Image from austenonly.com
Each of our British denominations of paper money has a picture of the Queen on one side and a famous Brit on the other. Every now and then, the famous face is retired and a new one takes its place. Our current crop are prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, scientist Charles Darwin, economist Adam Smith and then either the first governor of the Bank of England Sir John Houblon (old £50), or engineering business partners Matthew Boulton and James Watt (new £50).

When the Bank of England announced that Elizabeth Fry was going to be replaced with wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, some people kicked up a bit of a fuss - there would now be no women on the bank notes chosen by merit (of course, the Queen automatically gets on every one of them!). One woman in particular - Caroline Criado-Perez - ran a campaign to make the Bank of England think again, and was naturally delighted to be told that Charles Darwin was going to be replaced with novelist Jane Austen. However, because of this effort, Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to the most vile and vitriolic hate campaign, escalating to actual threats of rape and/or death made against her on Twitter. A man has now been arrested. All this because of a bank note!

Anyway, I don't want to discuss the campaign, as I'm pretty sure we can all agree that threats of sexual violence are never anything other than despicable, and I personally didn't have a strong opinion on the inclusion/exclusion of women on four different bits of paper. I am however, glad to see a writer on the notes again.

No, all I really want to ask, is - if you were in charge of your currency, who would you put on your bank notes? Are there any writers you think should be honoured in this way, or are there other people who would be first in line?

Image from Wikipedia
The Bank of England has produced a list of possible faces, suggested by the public, which you can download here. Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare have already been used in the past, but other writerly suggestions include Geoffrey Chaucer, most of the romantic poets, Robert Burns, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sister (Emily and Charlotte - sorry, Anna!), HG Wells, George Orwell, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf and Terry Pratchett - any of those take your fancy? Perhaps in the future we will see JK Rowling or Iain Banks on our notes? My choice would be CS Lewis as I love his books and it would be nice to see somebody Northern Irish joining the fun.

If I was being sensible my non-writer suggestions would be Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor - kind of - of the internet), the engineer Brunel, or the mathematician Alan Turing, but really, my favourite non-writer suggestion already on the list is John Cleese! In fact, why not lighten the mood after the latest debacle and just agree to have comic characters for a while - Basil Fawlty, Private Pike, Compo, Baldrick...