Monthly Archives: January 2015

On-Line Writing Course #2 in-progress

So this is how I’m getting on with the course on-line, focusing on 5 responses to my experiences so far. In my post about learning aims, I left you as I was about to enter the on-line site. Immediately I experienced something that was familiar but unexpected:

1. Disorientation

Remember when you first went to school, college, university? You found the building and stood in the hallway looking at all the signs, the many doors and the other people who all appeared to know what they were about. It was like that. I got onto the site, which looked just like a Facebook page, by which I mean lots of possibilities with no clues about how to proceed. So what to do? I hadn’t expected to feel so lost or uncertain. Where do I go? How do I find out? Have I time for coffee? I don’t want to be here.

145 writing keyboardI was surprised by my own sense of powerlessness, and of the familiarity of these feelings of disorientation from all the occasions when I had begun courses in the real world. And even more surprised because I have sat on the other side of the screen, as it were, and done some on-line tutoring. Hah!

I like the idea that being intelligent means knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. I had been emailed some joining notes. First find your group.

And now, after three weeks I know exactly where I’m going and I go there. I ignore all distractions, invitations to chat, linger and discuss the writing ideas of other people. I go straight to my course and do my stuff.

Note to self: remember you always feel like this when a course starts. Just get to the right place at the right time.

2. The seduction and distraction of praise

Praise is such a difficult thing. I’ll be honest, I’d love people to be stunned by my writing, exclaim over its brilliance, its depth, the imagery and characterisation etc etc. But I notice that when I am praised (and I have been!) it gets in the way of reading the other bits that will be more helpful in the longer term. This is, after all, a course about self-editing and my intention is to improve my novel with the skills learned.145 emoticon

Feedback is a wonderful thing and I am getting a great deal out of both receiving it and giving it. But if there is praise I have to steer myself past it to see the stuff that I need. I have discussed praise in other places (see Annethology and Norah Colvin’s blogs for example) and its relevance to learning.

Note to participants: please don’t stop the praise if you think it’s deserved. I will get to that useful stuff.

Note to self: it’s about time you ditched this childish need, it is in danger of inhibiting your learning.

3. Disadvantages of being on-line

In a classroom I would hear all the contributions of every participant. As we make our comments on each other’s topic lines this is not quite so easy. I would have to check 14 lines every time I entered the site, as well as checking the Wall. It’s permanent so it has advantages, and it’s not that difficult. But I have to make the effort, which is challenging when I’m in a hurry.

4. Advantages of being on-line

On the other hand, we are freed from the restrictions of all turning up at the same time, in the same place. Suits me. And the comments wait until I’m ready.

5. Learning

And I’m learning lots. I wanted to develop some skills, and some insights into my novel and the work I need to do to take it from a first full draft to a better crafted second draft. I am beginning to see how I could do that. I’ll say 145 inkwell noun projmore about this in a later post.

A major issue for me now is that I also want to steam ahead with another writing project (non-fiction) with a March 2016 deadline. The three authors had a 3-day write-in last week, so I’m brimming with ideas. How will I manage both?

 

Any comments about on-line writing courses? Anything from my fellow participants? Or tutors?

 

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In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

There is a poetic quality to this book. It can be found in its sparseness and the observations of the flight of the swallows, the orchard of pomegranates. The title indicates a certain fragility, a carefulness, consideredness, by the inversion of the usual word order. The narrator is speaking quietly. He is considering extreme pain and suffering and we want to know what has sustained him.

148 Orchard cover

The narrator is unnamed, perhaps indicating he could be any human being. He tells the reader that he is now 29. He has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. The culture of the fruit, how it ripens, how it should be cared for runs through the novel.

He is not addressing us but Saba, the daughter of the local political leader. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was 14. He had made the mistake of falling for Saba. Her father had him beaten and imprisoned, without trial. His release was as arbitrary as his imprisonment and he has to learn all over again how to survive in his new environment. Although he has returned to the orchard of his childhood everything has changed. This is north Pakistan.

148 pomegranate treeHe is helped by the kindly Abbas, who takes him into his house. He also has a daughter, Alifa, whose future education is threatened by the Taliban’s campaign against schools.

The narrator is an innocent, who learned to survive in his prison through the use of his imagination: recalling Saba and the night they spent in the orchard, the swallows that fly there. His recovery is helped by the kindness of Abbas and by writing to Saba, who will never know of him. He must first face the physical difficulties.

I have had to learn again how to write. I had almost forgotten, and it was painful to grip the pen in my hand for any length of time. My thumb tingled with numbness, and my palm would freeze in agonising contortions so that I had to massage my grip free. But my two teachers, one old and one young, have been patient with me, and my long ago lessons have not left me entirely. I was soon able to sit and write with Alifa. It is true that my hand still aches as I work, that I must pause often and stretch my fingers before I take up the pen again, to allow the cramps to fade, but the process of adding words to the page brings so much pleasure that I do not mind the discomfort that accompanies it. In the cold morning air it takes a minute before the ink in my pen flows, and I write with it against the skin of my arm until it comes, not wishing to deface the pages of the notebook until I can write on them cleanly. (76)

This is a careful description of the physicality of handwriting. It points up one of the stylistic pleasures of the book. Adjectives are used sparingly, even in descriptive passages. Instead the narrator reports sights, sounds and smells in an even way. Yet he lets us know his reactions, for example when he first visits Abbas’s garden and is reminded of prison by the walls, but then lets the smell of the roses comfort his body. We learn too of the intensity of small pleasures, and of quiet lives.

And, yes, the notebook: its covering card is dyed violet, like the sky at dusk, at the last moment before darkness. Its paper is handmade, mulched together and pressed down then dried in the sun, before it was cut into sheets and folded into books. The pages bear the marks of their construction, and recorded in the texture of each page must be some evidence of the individual who made them. Within the paper are fine flecks of chipped wood, and threads run beneath the surface like the fossilised remains of creatures we used to find in the rocks, in places along the roadside. The firm tip of my ballpoint pen travels pleasurably over them. Along the spine, three holes have been pierced with an awl, and the loose leaves are tied through them with rough string. The string is long, so that it may be wrapped around the book to bind it; it trails loose now, as I write in the open leaves. (76-7)

Aah, this is the physical pleasure of handmade paper. What writer, what lover of stationery doesn’t recognise this?

Pomegranate photo via wikicommons Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Pomegranate photo via wikicommons Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

This simple style is also effective for reporting some of the worst experiences of the narrator.

They held me down and beat my feet. I had never known such agony – each strike travelling instantly through the entire body, my nerves lit with awful pain. It caused my stomach to seize, and I vomited, almost choking on it before I could turn my head and spit it from my mouth. The policeman swore, and beat me harder. I screamed and screamed. I struggled, but could not move. (53)

The observation that this treatment is randomly inflicted and only to relieve the boredom of the guards is yet more chilling.

The novel is structured in short scenes that move between his recovery and the events that led to his imprisonment. The reader asks, what sustains people when they are suffering? What heals them? And we know the answer, but it is beautifully and gently presented here: love, beauty, kindness, connecting, the good things about humankind.

Other readers have reviewed this book:

Mirza Waheed commented on the lingering quality of the book in a review in the Guardian.

The Hungry Reader blogger also commented on its unforgettableness, and suggested everyone should read it.

And for some of Peter Hobbs’s own story, his connection with Pakistan, his own form of imprisonment, read this article from the Canadian National Post. Peter Hobbs lived in Canada for a couple of years.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by faber and faber (139 pp)

Any thoughts about this book? How did you react to it?

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4 Reasons to Enter Writing Competitions

Why oh why do I do it? It happens over and over again. I notice a short story competition in a writing magazine or through Twitter. It has a desirable prize: money or publication or prestige or, best of all, all three. I check the rules, polish the story, pay the entry fee and upload the file.

Rosette from Cornwall Agricultural show by Matnkat, via WikiCommons

Rosette from Cornwall Agricultural show by Matnkat, via WikiCommons

Polishing the story can take some time. It might require checking former prize winners’ stories, revision to meet the word total, or complete revision because the story has been resting. It always requires a day or two of polishing

I press SEND adding an extra-virtual blessing. I have hope. This may be the one. I have high hopes for a couple of days, and then they descend gradually, and I forget about hoping until I realise that the day of judgement has long passed and I have heard nothing. Yet again I have not won a writing competition. I am very good at not winning short story competitions.

So why do I do it?

Four reasons to enter

  1. The deadline provides some external but strong discipline. The limits provided by the terms of entry are also a useful tool: to keep to 2000 words, and to ensure you have the right font, line spacing, and no mention of your name on the document. As writers of short fiction and flash fiction know, the limits of the form distil the choice of words. Every word must do its work to justify its place in the story.
  2. If I can do all that well enough, follow the rules and pay the entry fee I feel I’ve achieved something.
  3. Recently I entered an international short story competition, and was offered a critique of my piece for a few £££s more. I was feeling flush and agreed. As a result of the feedback received I already know the story wont win the competition. But the critique was excellent and showed me where I needed to do some work to improve it.
  4. I might win. There is a story about the lottery. A scrooge-like Mr Suggs was pestering God to let him win the lottery. Day after day he prayed to God to win the jackpot. Eventually God was exasperated. ‘You want to win the jackpot, Mr Suggs?’ he bellowed. ‘Do me a favour and meet me half way: buy a lottery ticket.’ So if I want to win a writing competition I do have to enter.

What other writers say

In her blog Top of the Tent Safia Moore lists four international competitions for short story writers with prize money. She suggests them for writers who have included competition entry in their new year’s resolutions. Motivation, she suggests, is a key feature of such entries, but the competition can be tough.

Writing in a recent edition of Mslexia Mahsuda Snaith revealed that she had entered about 300 competitions. Like me, she counts submitting among her achievements when she isn’t winning. Unlike me, she has had success, not least as a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Competition in 2013. And that success got her signed up with an agent. Mslexia has a short story competition with a deadline in March 2015.

147 A&WYBClaudia Cruttwell shared her experience of entering competitions for novels on the Writer&Artists website. The value she reports is in taking a fresh look at her MS and seeing it from the perspective of a judge. The requirement for a synopsis also focuses her mind. She hopes to attract an agent. And while she likes feeling pro-active as she enters she warns against the seductiveness of the volume of competitions. Note to self: this is a useful warning.

She’s right. There are so many. There is a long list of competition awards and prizes in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook with its own index. I have the supplement of a writing journal on my desk. ‘Plan your writing year,’ it prompts. 13 pages of competitions are listed and there are also ads for many of them. The editor suggests that competitions are motivational, ‘a great way to keep your writing mind sharp’ and to bring you to the attention of agents and publishers.

Lynsey May suggests discrimination in selecting a competition and some research into what you might get out of it in her post Always read the fine print. She relates a sad experience to support this advice.

Copa El Pais – Paraguay, by Flahm, via WikiCommons

Copa El Pais – Paraguay, by Flahm, via WikiCommons

I’m pausing for a time as far as competitions go, while I do my writing course. In addition I have a non-fiction work in progress with two colleagues, as well as other things to do – suc as reading and writing posts for the blog. So I wont enter any competitions for a couple of months. But I will tell you if I win.

 

Have you got any good experiences of entering a writing competition? What’s your secret? What’s your motivation?

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The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I am a little in awe of novels set in the Far East, and especially if the action occurs during the war. Three other books come to mind that are worth reading: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (reviewed here). Life seems to be experienced more at the extremes in these novels. The privations are fiercer, punishments are harsher and the deaths more violent.

63 tale

The Gift of Rain has been on my tbr pile for sometime, recommended by the wonderful blogger Annecdotalist and endorsed by a place on the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2007.

Rain, as a gift, is of course ambiguous as it is for the protagonist of this novel, Philip Hutton, who is blessed with the gift of the title. There are few certainties in his life, and he is pulled in two or more directions throughout the novel. He tells his story to a visitor as an old man. It is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation of Penang. His narration offers little in the way of criticism or regret or judgement, despite some horrific cruelty and barbarity and acts of extreme generosity and humanity.

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into the world to say, to those for whom her prophesies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.

I know her words had truth in them, for it always seemed to be raining in my youth. There were days of cloudless skies and unforgiving heat, but the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting. Sometimes it rained so often I wondered why the colours around me never faded, were never washed away, leaving the world in mouldy hues. (13)

146 Gift rain coverThese are the opening paragraphs, setting up the expectation of change and wisdom from an older man’s perspective. There is a warning as well of the narrator’s acceptance of the relentless and unforgiving aspects of life’s events. Fate perhaps. The lofty and detached voice will come to relate some of life’s hardest suffering and challenges.

Philip Hutton grows up as a mixed race (English/Chinese) boy within an English family in Penang, Malaya in the late ‘30s. The tension between his dual ethnic heritages within his family is further heightened by his affiliation to the Japanese envoy, Endo-San, who takes him under his wing and teaches him the Japanese way. By the time of the Japanese invasion we have read of Philip’s experience of Japanese refinement and culture, the ethic of respect and loyalty and the skills of martial arts. He is drawn into these through his sensai.

It is clear to the reader, but not to Philip, that Endo-San while genuinely drawn to the young man is also exploiting Philip for his knowledge about the island to assist the invasion of Penang in December 1941. He has his own reasons for this betrayal. During the occupation Philip feeling guilty for all the information he gave his master, and in return for protection for his family, volunteers to join the Japanese occupier. His best friend joins the resistance. Again we read of the ambiguity and tension in Philip’s engagement with the occupying forces and his loyalty to his father, as well as to Endo-San. It is not a tension that the young man manages with ease.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

The Japanese were defeated, but not before they had stretched the loyalties and tensions between the Malay, British and Chinese communities, brutally removed any opposition and implicated Philip in some of their worst transgressions. We are continually invited to ask what options lay open to Philip, and once committed to one line of action how could he do the best according to his conflicting codes. Even fifty years later Philip’s reputation is mixed among the inhabitants of Penang, for he had been complicit in acts of atrocity in order to save some people.

The Japanese are also represented as conflicted. They are cultured, refined and very focused on economic and military domination of the Far East. Yet some of the most principled characters are Japanese. And it is made clear that many Japanese suffered from the war, not least the military personnel, and that some suffered for many lingering years to come. Philip’s visitor was the former lover of Endo-San, and she is dying from radiation sickness from one of the atomic explosions, Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This is carefully plotted novel, and very long. We are presented with the backstories of many characters, revealing varied cultural customs and beliefs and their strengths and flaws when these customs are tested in the extreme conditions of war. We find many themes here: ambivalence, contradictions, nuance, uncertainty, divided loyalties, imperfect understanding, pride, face and cruelty.

The descriptions are rich, like the action. Here is Philip meeting Endo-San on the beach one evening.

I went down to the beach late. It was a timeless moment of the day, the sand still wet and silky from a downpour that had occurred earlier. Dark clouds were racing away inland, leaving the seaward sky clear. The moon was already out, a pale companion to the sun that was setting reluctantly.

Birds flew low along the surface, while some pecked on the beach for the almost invisible baby ghost crabs. I could not see them as the scuttled across the beach, only the tracks they left behind them, marking the sand like writing etched by a ghostly hand.

It was quite chilly, the wind carrying a trace of the rain that now fell almost as unseen as the baby crabs, as thought the clouds had been scraped through a fine grater. I solitary figure stood staring out to sea as waves unrolled themselves around his feet like small bundles of silk. I walked up to him, feeling the coldness of the water. (307)

An editor should have removed nearly all uses of ‘almost’ (twice in that passage). Almost is a writer’s weasel word I think – was it invisible or not, unseen or not? I’m not a fan of tightening jaws either, and there are lots of those. But these are very small gripes in the face of the overall achievement of this novel.

Tan Twan Eng (2007) The Gift of Rain published by Myrmidon 508 pp

 

Links to other reviews:

Sam Jordison reviewed it in the Guardian for the Booker Prize Club. He had some editorial comments but thought it an excellent first book.

And the blogger dovegreyreader scribbles enjoyed it too and had some questions for Tan Twan Eng, to which he replied. Here’s the post.

 

Any thoughts about this novel? Have you read it? Do you intend to read it? What have you heard about it?

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An on-line writing course: #1 purposes

Writers must take risks. Personally I hate those little motivational quotes that seem to flood through the twitter timelines of the writing community. Are there a lot of procrastinors out there, delaying the moment of getting down to it by searching for pithy emoticon-strewn one-liners?

Being a good writer is not about nailing it first time. It’s about not giving up until a piece is polished to perfection.

Thank you. I know. But how?

Easy reading is damned hard writing. (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Thank you. I know. But what does ‘hard’ mean? How do you write harder?

The successful writer listens to himself. (Frank Herbert)

Thank you. Are all writers men? And what on earth does this mean in practice? And here’s my all time unfavourite:

Smiling is the best way to face any problem, to crush any fear and to hide any pain.

Not helpful. Smiling has not helped me edit one single sentence. Why do people write this stuff? I probably have to accept it comes with roaming in twitterland.

Despite my impatience with this stuff, the quotes that resonate with me are the ones about taking risks. Anne Rice says it:

145 Risk quoteHere’s my risk – blogging, that is going public, about an on-line writing course I have signed up for. I plan to write about my aims and purposes, about the processes and the outcomes. It’s that virtuous learning cycle of Do, Review, Learn and Apply for those of you in the education world. And risk can be a good learning strategy. Although I’m keen not to make a fool of myself.

Here goes.

Preparation for the course – clarifying my purposes.

The course blurb boils down to an intention to help writers develop self-editing skills. It begins in January 2015 and last for 6 weeks.

Some introductory explanation:

A long-term reader of this blog may have wondered what has happened to my novel. Is it still in the drawer, resting its way to perfection? Has the success of Retiring with Attitude since its publication in July 2014 led me to abandon the novel? Has it quietly been improved and is now ready for whatever the next thing is? No to all of those.

58 Bird by birdI had completed the first draft of the novel. All first drafts are ‘shitty’ according to Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. She was quoting Hemingway. Little of my first daft was raw, first splurge stuff, but I was still conscious that it was not yet ready to be shown to anyone. It needed work.

So I read through it. And I made notes. I began to work through different plot lines. I made notes. I read parts of the chapters to my writing groups that relate to one of the two protagonists. They commented. I made notes. And I say to myself, I don’t really know how to go about this revision. But I have lots of notes.

I want to make my novel the best it can be before sending it to a literary critique service. But after all the actions I have described above, it is clear to me that I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do next. Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, according to the educationalist Guy Claxton.

145 inkwell on screenI know what to do. Find help! And this course, on self-editing skills will be the start of that help! I hope.

So here are my aims for the course:

  • To acquire the skills I need to move my novel on to the next stage.
  • To practise these self-editing skills.
  • To begin to identify the tasks and approaches I need to attend to to move my novel on.
  • To identify specific tasks I need to undertake related to these aspects: plot, character, voice, point of view and prose.
  • To connect with other writers through the Cloud who are involved in the same processes.
  • To blog about the experiences at least once more.

My very first task is to find out how to get to the course on-line. It looks daunting but I must be able to do it. I set up a blog for goodness sake. The tutors advise familiarisation and practice in advance. My faith in them develops. Not only are they published writers but they seem to know a bit about learning to write and learning on-line.145 old hands

Wish me luck and no procrastination. This is it. *Moves cursor to enter website.* Six weeks of writing and editing to the discipline of another’s drum. I’ll let you know how I get on. I’m smiling, by the way.

145 emoticonMeantime, you could tell me what you think I have missed out in my purposes/aims/objectives for the course.

 

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