Category Archives: words

Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton was a great Christmas present, given to me by my daughter last year and finished 12 months later. It’s lasted all year and indeed I can foresee dipping into it time and time again, savouring the detail of the observations, and the language of the short descriptions. The book’s apt subtitle is Field Notes from a Small Planet.

Summary of Claxton

Claxton is a village east of Norwich in Norfolk. Mark Cocker has lived there since 2001, and he makes minute and detailed observations of wild life and landscapes for his columns in the Guardian and the Guardian Weekly. 140 of these are collected here, arranged by the months of a year. I read each month’s collection of about 10 short pieces in the corresponding month of 2016.

There is so much to relish here. Most of the pieces relate to the immediate surroundings of Claxton, but some are from travels further afield in the UK and even in Greece. He has a particular eye for bird life, but other fauna and flora, especially trees, are also lovingly observed.

The significance of place is emphasised in his Introduction.

Claxton is above everything a book about place, but it is also a celebration of the way in which a particular location can give shape and meaning to one’s whole outlook. (1)

Some examples

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

 

11th June 2012 on bumblebees:

Wait by the flowers and watch them traffic back and forth. Follow one for a few seconds and you’ll quickly appreciate the insatiable busyness of these wonderful creatures. We often think of them as amiably slow but the sheer speed with which they assess each flower, take nectar, or truffle through the pollen and move on to the next bloom is astonishing. In a minute they can cover hundreds of flowerheads. … Within a short while the foraging ceases and the bee will swing windward and rise high above the garden, vanishing into the horizon sometimes at canopy level. So much of bumblebees lives is spent in perpetual transit and even when you find a nest its happening as subterranean and largely hidden. (91)

16th August 2005 on meadow brown butterflies:

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Some meadow browns seem almost an exact analogue for the spent condition of the season. During the course of their two-week adult life the wings become bleached to a dull sepia and the edges clipped almost as if a child had patterned them with a butterfly-sized pair of scissors. Occasionally they are so tattered it is a wonder that they can fly at all. The ‘bites’ out of the wing edge can be the work of birds and are evidence – believe it or not – of a canny defence mechanism. At the moment the bird attacks, it is drawn by a sequence of dark spots on the meadow brown’s underside and is tricked into pecking at these rather than some vital organ on the abdomen. Thus the butterfly escapes with no greater loss than a little wing power. (117)

26th November 2012 on the avian disturbances caused by a peregrine falcon:

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

A criss-cross pattern of several thousand pink-footed geese was spread skywards for more than a kilometre. Amid their glorious barking chorus were the more musical anxiety calls of Canada geese and the nails-on-blackboard braying of greylags. They descended then rose several times and on each occasion the waves of wildfowl refuelled a general panic. A tight thousand-strong press of golden plover roved through the others like a mobile storm, while above were thinly spread flights of lapwings, starlings, ruff and black-tailed godwits. (167)

See what I mean? These three examples demonstrate Mark Cocker’s love of language and of the common or English names of natural phenomena. To promote English terms the book includes a glossary of species with both English and Latin names. And the whole is enlivened by Jonathan Gibbs’s illustration that are placed at the start of each month’s entries.

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker. Published by Penguin 2014. 238pp

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, words

In praise of … word hoards

Words are the building blocks of speech and writing used by all people to make meaning. The words we speak and write are what writers must work with. We can play around with them, import some from other languages or invent new ones as Lewis Carroll famously did. Think of the runcible spoon.

So writers should occasionally think words, just words, to sharpen their skills. We need skill to put them together convincingly, in ways that enthral, please, make a case. One way I enjoy focussing on words is to compile a word hoard. I am inspired in this by other writers.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane, in many of his books, examines the details and grand sweep of the natural world and their meanings for humans, and he does this in prose that continually delights. At last I have got round to dipping into Landmarks. In this book Robert Macfarlane draws on writers of the natural world, such as Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) and Roger Deakin (Notes from Walnut Tree Farm). And he has burrowed into the languages of the natural world. He gives us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

304-landmarks-cover

He describes his collections as word hoards. Many of them are local and precise words for phenomenon found in the landscape. I picked out some from Devon, where I live. I love the word ammil, which denotes a particular kind of frost, which edges leaves (p4).

ammil

ammil

My mother brought to my vocabulary clart and clarty, describing mud, and I use it for that which sticks to my walking boots. She learned it in Cumberland, and Robert Macfarlane includes clairt, a Scots variation (p285). Exmoor folk use claggy. Another Devonian word in his hoard is dimmity, used to describe twilight (p223).

Many of the words in Robert Macfarlane’s collections are specific to location and reflect the need for precision in vocabulary in the wild environment. Others are necessary for the pursuit of a craft or skill, such as fishing, farming, woodworking. Words also reveal connections with ancient languages, Scandinavian, Gaelic, Latin or more modern scientific studies and poetic imaginations.

He quotes the writer Henry Porter who lamented the disappearance from OUP children’s dictionaries of words related to the natural world in an article in the Observer in December 2008:

euphonious vocabulary of the natural world – words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it. (4)

euphonious is going into my word hoard.

It pays to increase your word power

While Robert Macfarlane’s book speaks to the mutability of language I think of my father. In a dispute about the meaning of a word, or on meeting an unfamiliar one, he would produce one of his two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to settle arguments. To him, a scientist, meaning was fixed within the word. No amount of argument convinced him that words could change meanings. Even telling him that ‘presently’ in Shakespearean times meant immediately (ie in the present) while today it means the opposite, even this cut no mustard with him. And yet my father introduced me to Alice in Wonderland.

And what about those people who use frequently when they mean regularly and vice versa? Now I’m straying into pedantry. More objectively I think you can see the changing meaning of words in that exchange of terms. In 50 years regularly will always mean frequently. In principle I like the ways in which words’ meanings evolve, are connected to the lives we lead, even if the pedant in me mutters aloud.

I have been known to invent a word or two myself: a prongadang is the implement with which I operated the gas lighter on my cooker for many years. It was the handle of a wooden spoon should you ask for a description. I thought I had invented spruancy to describe a particular kind of dressing up, mixing glamour and showing off, but Google tells me that it is a Jewish word invented by British Jews. It’s a great word whatever its origins.

Collecting words

I am busy compiling my own word-hoard. It’s an idea I owe to Barbara Baig and her book Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers.

Good writers are people who love language; one of the reasons they write is that it gives them the opportunity to spend a lot of time with words. So they notice and collect words all the time, exercising and strengthening their word minds in the process. (28)

304-sp-sentences-cover

The writers I used to coach to improve their academic writing were always a little startled when I recommended a practice that might be called theft, except that words have no value if they are kept by just one person. Their value is in shared use. I pinched this from a professor of linguistics.

For years and years (and I still do it, you know) I used to read things not only because of the sort of stuff that was in it, so it wasn’t only reading for learning, but also for stealing stylistically. I ruthlessly exploited other people’s oeuvre as a source of inspiration for particular turns of phrase – especially in English, of course, which is my fourth language. But whenever I saw a beautifully worded argument or whenever I saw a nice turn of phrase or expression that I found appealing, I used to make a note of it. And I really collected it like a sort of butterfly collection – I still do, always with an explicit plan of, at some point, using it. I can say with confidence that I have used most of it. (89)

This is from an interview with Jan Blommaert, in Passion and Politics, academics reflect on writing for publication, (2008) edited by Eileen Carnell, Jacqui MacDonald, Bet McCallum and Mary Scott.

A writer who has consistently stretched my vocabulary is Virginia Woolf. I have enjoyed #Woolfalong in part because my contributions have required me to look closely at her use of language, her vocabulary in different books. Orlando, for example, revels in language.

My Word Hoard

I started with my hoard with:

Hoard, a noun and a verb, frequently found in relation to museum artefacts, and full of mystery. Hoarding implies secreting, storing, hiding. Why were these coins included in this hoard? Why were the items of value collected and hidden? What about the hack silver (another great word) found in a Viking hoard in Cuerdale, Lancs?

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

Runes, is another word in my hoard. It’s magical, as are all languages. Runes can conjure what is not there. It has a connection to the Vikings. The language of the runes is Old Norse, largely replaced by the Roman alphabet. Runes is a word that ripples on the page to connect with mystery, magic and olden times.

304-runes

Lapis lazuli is also in my hoard. I love its sound and I love small samples of the mineral. But it is on probation at the moment. My experience in The Hermitage in St Petersburg was of lapis lazuli used in excess. In two rooms there were gargantuan, vulgar, displays. In each room two huge tables with green or blue lapis lazuli veneers were flanked by the most enormous urns, also covered in veneer. I guess Catherine the Great was only hoarding the stuff.

DSC01773.JPG

I have recently added euphonious (see above)

Words in my hoard have associations, and they need to be connected to meanings that carry integrity, or significance associated with the struggle for human rights, or with my other enthusiasms. So some place names sit, not happily, in my hoard: Nagasaki, Abervan, Gallipoli, Sharpeville, Chernobyl.

And I can’t get the surly bonds of earth out of my head, an earwig. John Gillespie Magee began his poem High Flight with these two lines:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

His poem captures the exhilaration of flying, and the phrase surly bonds reminds us of our roots, grounds us you might say.

Given the nature of hoards, and specifically their association with precious metals and stones, I need a special notebook to hold my hoard. Dear Santa …

Over to you

I think that’s enough of my hoarded words. How about a few suggestions from you?

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin in 2016 with an additional glossary. 434pp

Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers by Barbara Baig. Published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2015

Related posts

Four More Good Reads August 2015

Ten Books to make me think August 2013

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, words, Writing

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I love to read an intelligent novel, one that makes demands upon the reader, that isn’t all about the story. A book that looks at something in a new way, shows me something from a different angle. Such a book is Hot Milk, a tale, as the title suggests, about a mother and her daughter relationship that is not going well. This novel is readable, very moving and thought-provoking.

293-hot-milk

The Story

A young woman, Sofia, and her mother Rose (64) have come to Almeria in Southern Spain, a place where the desert meets the sea. Rose has come to the Gomez Clinic at great expense, in order to find a cure for her unnameable, undiagnosed illness that has afflicted her for so long. Sofia accompanies her as her carer. Rose cannot walk, she claims, has no feeling in her feet. While Rose consults the possibly charlatan Dr Gomez, Sofia undertakes adventures that widen her previously small life.

‘I wanted to write a story about hypochondria,’ said Deborah Levy in an article in the Guardian. One of the curious features of hypochondria is that while it is about fabricated and imagined illness, it is itself a pathology. It also ensnares others, in this case Sofia.

Sofia

Sofia tells the story. Here is how the novel opens:

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me that anyone else.

So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I. (1)

Sofia is conscious that her life is very restricted. A little while later she goes swimming and meets the medusas – stinging jellyfish:

I am far away from shore but not lost enough. I must return home but I have nowhere to go that is my own, no work, no money, no lover to welcome me back. When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over. (71)

Poor Sofia, she doesn’t have much going for her: an abandoned PhD in anthropology, barista job, single, never lived with anyone but her mother, father abandoned them when she was 7 and returned to Greece. While Rose attends the clinic Sofia develops two love affairs, with Ingrid a German seamstress and Juan who looks after the injury tent on the beach and treats her for multiple medusa stings.

With Sofia as the narrator we should ask, are things how they look? After a few pages we are wondering about Rose’s illnesses, Gomez clinic, what Ingrid embroiders on the silk sun top, the broken laptop, the wrong sort of water, the dog that barks, her father’s newfound happiness in Athens, everything…

The author herself explains the central question raised by the novel:

Hot Milk puts the Medusa to work to ask Sofia a question: what is so monstrous about a young woman, who constantly has to endure the violence of the ways in which she is societally gazed upon, returning that gaze full-on? What would it take to insert her subjectivity into the world, instead of looking away? [in How to Write a Man Booker Novel in the Guardian, as above]

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Sofia has to learn that we should not always accept the identity given to us because of our nationality, gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and so forth. We are also, she learns, constructed by the things that happen to us, that we take part in. Identity is formed in part by experiences, which she finds when she follows Dr Gomez’s suggestions, such as practicing boldness. Here the myth of Medusa’s stare is significant. You may be stung by the gaze of others, but you can choose not be turned to stone or beheaded.

Rose, the mother

Part of Sofia’s problem is her mother. Her hypochondria has locked Sofia into a mutually dependent relationship. Sofia loves her mother, but hates her at the same time. She hates her mother’s unreasonable demands, the way she flirts with Gomez, the possibility that she lies; she understands how difficult it was to raise her after Christos left, how she takes on the world and her charm. Sofia wants more for her mother as well as for herself. In the final pages of the novel she articulates this.

I had been waiting on her all my life. I was a waitress. Waiting on her and for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom, to buy a ticket to a vital life. With an extra ticket for me. Yes, I had been waiting all my life for her to reserve a seat for me. (216)

I like the use of words throughout the novel, often calling up several meanings. In this passage I can pick out the following: waiting on her mother, invalid, waiting for herself.

297-alt-hot-milk-cover

The writing

Sofia is by training an anthropologist. This allows her, as narrator, to use her powers of observation as in this list of ingredients in the scene at the market.

I stood up and took my place behind the wheelchair, lifted up the brake, which was difficult because my espadrilles were flopping off my feet and began to push my mother down the dust road, dislodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jambon iberico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and turmeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers, while Rose swatted flies landing on her feet with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books. (93)

Touristy and practical, African and European, tacky and sophisticated, old and new and that final humorous image! There is lots of humour in this book, like the lunch that Sofia attends, but she is not allowed to speak.

Also delightful are Sofia’s occasional riffs on the meanings of things, such as her Greek father’s new wife, who has given up a high powered job saving the Euro for cosy domesticity in Athens where she frequently has to pretend to be asleep.

This is the first novel I have read by Deborah Levy. She has written six, and many plays. There is more about her on her website. I plan to read Things I don’t want to know (2014) next, being an answer to George Orwell’s Why I Write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016) Hamish Hamilton. 218pp (Paperback available in May 2017)

Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize 2016

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, words

Marketing our Book

Writing a book is more than writing a book. It needs marketing. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change visited the publisher’s offices in Bristol, Policy Press, last week. It was in part an excuse for a day out and for the three of us, Eileen Carnell, Marianne Coleman and me, to meet up for the first time in several months. We received a very warm welcome and continue to be impressed by the many creative young women who work in publishing. The meeting was productive and we are excited about preparing for Publication Day on 7th September. Our job now is to help the publisher get the book to the people who want to read it.

274 New Age

Why have a publisher?

Producing a book, we have learned in the past, is a joint project between writers and publisher. Writing the text of a book is only one step. Without a publisher we could never have reached so many readers for our previous books. And again we find a publisher who helped to improve the writing and will handle promotional activities, distribution to bookshops and report on sales.

145 old hands

We can’t do without them. The expertise of Policy Press led us through the following promotional areas at our meeting.

The book cover, including endorsements

Our meeting with Jess, the publicity and marketing person at Policy Press, began by revising our summary of the book, the blurb, as it appears on the back cover. We had a brief discussion about the word ‘prove’. The researcher in me balks at its use, but we decided it’s a good word to do some of the required work on the cover: Brought alive by the voices of people aged 50 to 90, it proves ageing is not passive decline but a process of learning, challenges and achievement.

We moved on to selecting the endorsements. We had suggested some people they might approach, and some of these people had come up with engaging quotes for the back cover and for inside the book. We are rather pleased with the selection, an eminent MP and a couple of professors and one or two other luminaries. They are all well known leaders in the field of policy, public discourse and research into ageing.

Their words make me blush: compelling case for radically different approach to later life, inspiring book, excellent and eminently readable, welcome light …We hope they will also encourage readers to open the book.

Pitching for articles and reviews

Eileen and Marianne discussing writing points for The New Age of Ageing

Eileen and Marianne discussing writing points for The New Age of Ageing

We plan to hook into some themes that are around at the time of publication, such as housing and suitable accommodation for everyone. We explored what will happen around that time and how to be invited into the discussions and add to the arguments. Our book challenges some widely-held assumptions, and raises issues that are often not heard, so we have to push to get our arguments across. This is where marketing and promotion gets interesting, because it is of course about engaging people in what we have laboured to write. This is not like selling baked beans, or offering quantity (BOGOF). We have something to say and we want to be heard. We believe in what we have written: the authors’ moral commitment is obvious, according to one testimonial.

We moved on to discussing where we would like to see the book reviewed: journals, current affairs, magazines, and so on

Social Media activities

Our twitter hashtag is developed, #newageofageing, and we plan to tweet like mad – well, those of us who have twitter accounts; and to promote the book on Facebook, Linked-In and through other connections. We talked about coverage on this blog, Bookword, and Policy Press’s blog and others we can get to. Any invitations? We would really like you to be involved.

Other activities

There are some other possibilities too: postcards, flyers, articles, bookshops, speaking events, radio shows … We each began compiling lists of possibilities.

During the meeting Jess mentioned that the book goes to the printers this week. Hard copies will be available soon. The approach of publication day is exciting. We are proud.

And in all this activity and excitement we found time for the three of us to discuss our next writing project. Watch this space!

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman will be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

Copies of The New Age of Ageing will be available through the Policy Press website, at a 20% discount. It will cost £14.99 £11.99.

Related posts

A Little Rant about Marketing Books Like Cornflakes on this blog in November

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Learning to be old by Eileen Carnell (July 2016)

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Reviews, words, Writing

Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.

DSC01526.JPG

Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

273 Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

273 signpost

There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.

 

Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

 

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, words, Writing, Writing and Walking

Ways with Words and the Point of Literary Festivals

What is the point of a literary festival? It is an aspect of the business side of publishing books. It provides writers with a platform for their ideas and, if the author is lucky, a pot of jam or some such in payment. It provides revenue for the venue, and B&Bs in the area. And for the punters? What’s in it for them?

Queuing for Shirley Williams

Queuing for Shirley Williams

Ways with Words, a ‘festival of words and ideas’, is held annually in July, in Dartington Hall, Devon. I live less than 10 miles away so I can pick and choose my sessions without spending a fortune, and this year I picked three.

AL Kennedy, Serious Sweet and extending herself.

Extending yourself for others. This is how AL Kennedy described writing, and thereby claimed it as an act of love. She read from her new novel Serious Sweet, published in May. The reading was excellent, bringing alive both dialogue and inner monologue. It was also funny, witty, sharp, a bit sweary and very perceptive.

269 SeriousSweet cover

She was asked some questions, the kind one might anticipate. Who are your influences? Why are you AL Kennedy not Alison? Tell us how to write! Her answers reminded us that

  1. AL Kennedy is also a stand-up comedian with the ability to ad lib on a topic;
  2. She is very reflective and self-aware;
  3. She has a wonderful way with words.

The answer to how to write is to find a place of safety, do your best, ‘and the rest is grammar, which you can find in books’.

You can find her website here.

What is the point of literary festivals? To hear writers such as AL Kennedy, and be enthused all over again about the value of writing.

Katy Norris and Christopher Wood

Which came first, the exhibition or the book? This question was asked after Katy Norris had told us about the life and work of Christopher Wood. She is curator of Pallant House, Chichester, where there is an exhibition of his work. She told us of her enthusiasm for the research, looking at the many influences on his life, and the circles he moved in in the 1920s in Paris and England.

269 KNorrisCwood

The book and the exhibition had progressed together, a dynamic process whereby the one informed the other. Sounds like the best non-fiction writing process.

What is the point of literary festivals? To hear a new perspective on an art exhibition. Last year I learned about Eric Ravillous.

Christopher Wood, self-portrait, 1927, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

Christopher Wood, self-portrait, 1927, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Richard Fortey in the Woods

The third presentation was my only celebrity event. Richard Fortey was scheduled against an even bigger celebrity, Shirley Williams, and still managed to fill the hall. He told us about a year in his woods, a 4-acre beech wood in the Chilterns. We learned how interconnected are the history, geology, biodiversity, changing economics, changing land use, and effects of different life forms from mountain bikers, to grey squirrels and a moth that infects trees. These last three can all cause damage, but Richard Fortey appears to be a force for good, which means biodiversity. He’s published a book called The Wood for the Trees: one man’s long view of nature.

269 Wood for the trees cover

What is the point of literary festivals? To learn from experts and enthusiasts, and about newly published books.

And finally …

101 RWA coverWhat is the point of literary festivals? Two years ago Eileen and I got our own moment in the spotlight when we shared a session called Growing Older with Angela Neustatter, grandstanding our previous book Retiring with Attitude. It’s about getting a platform and a pot of jam.

 

 

Related Posts

Ways with Words July 2014, in which we anticipated our presentation.

Ways with Words – part 2, in which we reflected on our presentation.

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Reading, words, Writing

Libraries again and again

National Library Day is Saturday 6th February. Here we are again, defending public libraries, arguing for them to be kept open in the face of so-called austerity, reminding people of the value of free access to books.

Public libraries are in danger. Cutting them is a shortsighted policy; libraries contribute in the long run to many, many people’s knowledge and understanding, to their creative abilities and to their imagination and wonder. They do not cost much, in comparison with, say Trident or HS2 or keeping people in prisons.

We need to hear and repeat the arguments supporting public libraries from those who benefitted from open access and a friendly librarian in their youth, from those who are out-of-pocket and who benefit from reading for free (as well as using the other facilities of public libraries) and for the civilising influence of culture on a country. Neil Gaiman said that libraries are

the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.

I bring three witnesses to support National Library Day.

Peter Balaba, Head Librarian, Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda.

Peter says,

Nakaseke is a very rural region. Most of the population live as subsistence farmers, growing crops like coffee, maize or beans or raising animals. This is not a rich area. Perhaps sometimes people have enough produce to sell and make extra money, but very few people have books in their homes. No one has a computer to access the internet. This is why the library is so important for the community here.

For the farmers of Nakaseke, the information the library provides is vital. It can mean the difference between a good crop and a bad one. A good crop will feed their families and leave something over to sell. A bad crop can mean ruin.

There are no books in the schools here – they do not even have money to buy desks or chairs for the children. The classrooms are bare. So we run outreach programmes for the children, which means that up to 100 children might be in the library – so many we have to put half of them in our reading tent outside.

Nakaseke library has been supported by Book Aid International since 2003. Their slogan is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid logo

Zadie Smith, novelist

23 Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith tried to save Kensal Rise Library in London, but it was closed with 5 others in 2011, saving £1m annually.

I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library. But then, it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little. But the low motives [of the government] as it tries to worm out of its commitment … is a policy so shameful that they will never live it down.” Local libraries, Smith said, are “gateways to better, improved lives”. (Guardian 16th 2015)

The article that reported this goes on to list other libraries under threat in Fife, Newcastle, Liverpool and Lewisham in London. Writers such as Zadie Smith and many others are active in the campaign to save them.

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Ali Smith, writer

229 Ali Sm

She is one of the most inventive writers of the current day. Her novel How to be both was the success of last year. In 2015 Ali Smith also published Public Library and other stories. The book contains 12 short stories, none of them called Public Library. The title comes from the interspersed comments from other bookish people about the importance of libraries, especially for younger people. The theme of the collection concerns the benefits of reading, not only for writing but also for connections between people.

Ali Smith’s stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, delights readers with her inventiveness, her creativity, her quirky view on things so that it is as if she takes you by the shoulders and shows you a familiar thing in a different way.

She is playful with words and informative about their histories. And she lists, lingers on lists of everything. Her stories connect people through fiction, (Katherine Mansfield) and other cultural things (Dusty Springfield, Scotland).

The importance of books and libraries cannot be denied.

One short story from the collection made available to download and read by Pool here: The Art of Elsewhere.

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith, published in 2015 by Hamish Hamilton. 220 pp

Charlie Brown

And another witness – Peanuts!

223 Peanuts library

Linked post

Library cuts are pay cuts. Really! December 2014.

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, words, Writing

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop

Gallimaufry. Say it out loud to hear the skip in the middle of the word, like a sedate court dance. Gallimaufry is a late medieval word, probably from the French, meaning a ridiculous medley, or a hodge-podge of odds and ends. It is the title of the anthology by The Totnes Writing Group. We took delivery of 100 copies on 1st December last year. The group had been working towards this for about four months. The copies were impressive: the cover and the piles. The writers present felt immense pride at an ambition achieved, and a successful project completed.

228 Galli cover

The Group

The group was started in 2013 as a library initiative – those libraries again. (see next post on 5th February). The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, film maker. Some are established writers, others are beginners. A motley group of 15 writers had produced a collection of 36 poems, short stories, memoirs, reflections and illustrations. My own contribution was a short story.

228 Writers group

Most of the stress of the project was carried by Fiona Murray who edited the book, dealt with the printers, and all the complaints of writers who had commas and fonts adjusted without their say-so.

Why we did it

Writers like having readers and for many it is the reason they write. Although members read their work to the group, which is important, many of us also seek a wider audience. We began to ask ourselves, why don’t we publish a book of our own writings and then used the skills within the group to find a way to do it.

The anthology provided protection and support for those who love writing but do not want to stick out and who suffer from lack of confidence about going public with their writing. It’s a bit like singing in a choir, one of our members observed. If we publish again we hope more writers from our group will contribute.

What the group learned

At our New Year meeting the group identified the following learnings:

Feedback from our readers suggests that the diversity of themes, styles and genres is an attractive feature of the collection. We did not have a theme although if a writer wanted one we suggested ‘Totnes’. This is pretty much how our group operates – loosely.

The cover and overall professional look added greatly to the attractiveness of the anthology. The silk collage used for the cover was made by Fiona Green, a member of the group.

Writers selected the pieces they wanted to contribute. The editor did not choose what to include. We set an initial 2000 word limit and later, when we worked out we could include more for the same costs, a few people contributed additional material.

The experience of writing is lonely. Our warm, supportive group made one aspect of writing – the production of the anthology – a social process for our writers. Social support is something we all value in the writing group.

Writing is often ephemeral and the production of the collection meant that words took a more permanent form for the contributors. Seeing our work on paper, and alongside the other contributions, made us feel more confident about our writing. It has also made us question our current practice. At the moment the writer reads aloud their text for which they want feedback. Perhaps we should have hard copies of the written text because seeing a poem or short story in print is different from hearing it.

The production of our anthology has made us question the purposes of our group. Are we in a new phase? Do we want to launch into another publication, even one in a different format, or do we want to focus a little more on writing processes?

What we need to think about if we do this again

Some of our practical decisions indicate a lack of experience. We could have thought further ahead about costings, publicity and sales. Since our purpose was not to raise money, but to provide a platform, some of that seemed less important. We still have a dozen copies from our print run. We are on the point of breaking even!

The sales team having some success.

The sales team having some success.

Our frustrations (carried by our noble editor) about the printer’s inability to make corrections without causing further unwanted alterations to the text suggest we need to build in more time and more support for proofreading. We wanted a local printer, but we might look for a more responsive one.

And what would be the purpose of a further publication? Do we want to be cherished by the local community? Do we want to be better known as a creative group, and to contribute to the local creative community?

Overall

We learned so much about publishing that I would recommend the process to anyone who wants a modest platform for their writing.

I acknowledge the contribution of our discussion within the group about what we learned in the writing of this post. However I have not attempted to define what the group thought. We are a diverse lot and we seldom agree on everything, but this project was A GOOD THING.

Gallimaufry, edited by Fiona Murray, 87pp. Price £5. Published December 2015.

To receive emails about future posts, please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Publishing our book, words, Writing

The Craft of Blogging #11 Titles

Titles do important work on any writing, and especially on a blogpost. For a blog the title has to work very quickly because, as any blog surfer will know, there are always lots of other blogposts to read. Apparently out of 10 people hunting for interesting pieces on the internet 8 will read the title and only 2 out of 10 will read the content. The question is how to choose titles that entice more of those missing 6 title-readers to read on.

Leopard by Peter Thomas, July 2013 via WikiCommons

Leopard by Peter Thomas, July 2013 via WikiCommons

The work of the blogpost title/headline

All titles need to do these things:

  • Catch the readers’ attention among all the possibilities
  • Announce the topic/content
  • Direct readers attention to the writer’s purposes
  • Invite the reader to read on

In the world of blogging first impressions are the only impression. Words need to do a great deal of work. The title of a post is often the only thing that a potential reader sees, not those enticing visuals you have imported, not that amazing first line. I chose what to read are from my twitter feed, full of competing posts, and email alerts from blogs I subscribe to. And like most social media users I make the decision in a second or two. What makes the potential reader open the link?

The title needs to stand out without being too cute (Robin Houghton’s phrase). And certainly without being tricksy. Nothing is more annoying than being misled into finding the post doesn’t follow through.

Title: How I found a WW2 spitfire in my garden. First line: Haha got your attention. Now read my post about the lambs outside my window.

Shreeja Jamdar suggest that some professional bloggers spend up to 50% of their time on a post contemplating the title. That’s over the top, but indicates how important they consider it. I don’t expect you have the time to do this. I certainly don’t.

Finding a few powerful words that work for you can also bring in readers. I found one recently, which I’ll share later.

What the gurus recommend

Guidance for bloggers abounds. Here’s a list I have compiled from various sources, including those mentioned below.

94 hook

Saying what it is

Being descriptive can work well. Here are two examples. How to write a click-worthy blog title from the blog Molly Greene: Writer, and 10 Blog title Formulae that actually work by Shreeja Jamdar on Crowdfire. Both got my attention. The titles did their job. This approach show how a descriptive approach links to the form of the post announced: a list, a how to …, my take on …, interview, review, round-up, prediction.

For book reviews the title and author seems to be adequate, Whispering Gums said in the comments on the general post on titles: On the tricky topic of titles. I agree.

The number

A very popular approach to titles relies on the attraction of numbers. It needs to have more of course: 10 ways to do something; 5 things I’ve learned about something; 4 good reads. Women’s magazines use this hook a lot. They always have numbers on their covers. According to Molly Greene, the number 10 gets the most hits. I noticed that Shreeja Jamdar’s post on 10 blog formulae misses the 8th formula.

The Question

Inviting a response is an obvious way to hook a reader. Has this happened to you? Would you do this to your best friend?

The How To [solve a problem]

This title says it’s just what the reader needs or may not have known they needed: How to deal with pesky spam on your blog; How to write a click-worthy blog title; How to find great images for your blog. We all need a little guidance now and again.

The How To avoid [a problem]

As above, you may not know that this is your problem, but read on and you will find out it is and how to fix it! How to avoid losing readers; How to avoid six of the most common blogging errors.

The Secrets

The approach appeals to curiosity, although secrets often means ‘How to…’. The secret of my writing success; The secret of good reviews. A little disingenuous really, this word secret, as nothing is secret on social media for long.

The Never titles

Not an approach I use because it is both negative and often at the expense of someone else, who did. But you can see the hook here. 5 things you should never do on your blog. Never run out of ideas for Christmas presents; Never give a dog a bad name.

The directed titles

Reference a group of people to appeal to them: For bloggers who want good titles for their posts; Ten best Victorian mysteries for readers of crime fiction; For fans of Elena Ferrante who want to know the truth.

Using power words.

You can use strong eye-catching words: awesome, mind-numbing, perfect, maximise, incredible, proven. The one that has worked for me is ‘a little rant about …’

And you could, especially if you are commercially minded, investigate SEO. After all, if titles play a major part in getting readers to your blog posts, then those search engines will pick up on the higher hit rate and push your keywords up their list. Success breeds success.

So, over to you …

Be creative, spend a little time and care on the titles and see what works for you. And please share any recommendations for blog titles. And any great examples of the skill

77 Blogging-coverRecommended and related

A recent post on Bookword: On the tricky topic of titles in November 2015

And the two previous posts in the Craft of Blogging series:

#10 Reuse Recycle Reduce

#9 Problems and more problems

Blogging for Creatives by Robin Houghton, published in 2012 by ILEX: Lewes Sussex. 192pp

 

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

6 Comments

Filed under The Craft of Blogging, words, Writing

Draw the line!

Cartoonists and other staff were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on 7th January 2015. Twelve people died in the attack and eleven people were wounded, four seriously. The responses were immediate, identifying with the victims – Je suis Charlie – the demonstrations in Paris and a renewed determination not to be cowed by extremist ideas and extreme action.

187 suis ch

One response, in the UK, was Draw the line Here, a collection of more than 100 cartoons by 66 cartoonists, drawn in response to the murders. It was curated by the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation committee. Funds were raised by CrowdShed crowdfunding. I’m proud to say I took a small part in the crowdfunding.

187 Draw f cover

Dedicated to anyone, anywhere or at any time who has suffered persecution for the crime of expressing their thoughts and opinions.

I wish I could show you some of the cartoons, but I can’t. But better yet, you could buy a copy.

187 je s c pencil

Predictably many of the cartoons utilise the black balaclava, the gun and its similarity in shape to the pen or pencil. Others draw on the absurdity of violence as a means of persuasion. Others simply restate a belief in freedom of expression. Yet others are concerned with the damage to Islam of the Paris attacks.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie in Kayserberg May 2015

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie in Kayserberg May 2015

In the foreword, Libby Purves refers with admiration to the art of cartoonists:

How do these guys with pencils and weird imaginations suddenly relax your thoughtful news reading frown into a daft grin and make you snort aloud at the memory hours later? … The glory of the art is in its freedom, its courage, its willingness to dance lightfooted over dangerous ground. Not with malice or threat, but in the name of freedom, curiosity, and argument.

And as if to endorse these words, without malice or vengeance this was the Charlie Hebdo cover on 14th January 2015 …

187 Ch hebdo

You can buy a copy of Draw the Line Here (£14.72) from English Pen, the publisher, by clicking here. Funds raised from the sale of Draw the Line Here will be shared between the families of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and English Pen’s Writers at Risk Programme.

And as you do, remember the importance of asserting freedom of expression. And remember the victims of those who believe that some things should not be thought or expressed in words or cartoons.

Back cover of Draw the Line Here

Back cover of Draw the Line Here

Draw the Line Here by Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, published by English PEN in June 2015. 90pp

 

To receive email about future notifications please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, words, Writing