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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

When I was at university the first time round, decades ago, there was a period of six months when I was unaccountably grumpy. Eventually I realised it was because I wasn’t reading anything for fun. It’s always been my habit to read before going to sleep (and at other times, of course, but always before sleeping), and for a variety of reasons it wasn’t happening at that time in my life. So I started reading again, and returned to my usual approximation of a reasonable human being.

As anyone who reads my Facebook updates will know, I’ve been quite grumpy lately too. Not because I haven’t been reading. Oh no, I’ve learned that lesson. I thought it was because I’m so busy. I don’t think I’ve had a day off for a month or so now, that includes evenings and weekends. Enough to make anyone grumpy, you might think. I would disagree. I love everything I’m doing at the moment. Everything. How lucky does that make me? The only minor problems are lack of time and money, but they’re small irritations and will sort themselves out. So… what on earth is wrong with me?

The Believer by Francis Upritchard

The Believer by Francis Upritchard

Yesterday I went to Nottingham Contemporary for the first time since the new exhibition opened – I’d enrolled on the Study Sessions series of workshops with Wayne Burrows and Sarah Jackson (wonderful poets and All Round Good Eggs). The aim of the sessions is to write one or more pieces of text departing from the work of the two artists currently being exhibited – Alfred Kubin and Francis Upritchard.

First of all, I was completely blown away by the artwork on display. Kubin’s drawings are grotesque but at the same time intensely human, drawing out the uncertainties and fears we all repress. And Upritchard’s sculptures are also grotesque and intensely human, but in a completely different way. They seem to be open to possibilities, not scary at all. I could have spent the two hours simply wandering around the exhibition and gazing at everything.

Writing notes

Pages from my notebook

That wasn’t the point though. The point was to write something. And I did. I scribbled notes and paragraphs and descriptions and free-writing, I jotted down thoughts and made diagrams with arrows and footnotes, I filled pages of my notebook with ideas for a story. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I want to finish all my work so I can start writing. I’m cheerful and energetic and bouncy. I want to stop writing this blog so I can write the story, and another story, and a poem or several, and…

I NEED TO WRITE!

Believe it or not, this is a surprising discovery. I knew I liked writing, but I never really understood people who said they ‘need’ to write. I thought I wasn’t a proper writer, because I didn’t share that ‘need’. I thought to myself… well, I’ll just make myself a career around writing, I’ll teach and publish and edit and proofread and typeset. And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have time to write.

How wrong I was.

Now all I have to do is make sure I have that time. It’s a good job I can get by on a couple of hours sleep a night. (I’m lying. I can’t.)

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Strange Little Girl

Growing up with libraries

Sad Cafe - Strange Little Girl

Click to listen...

I grew up without a TV. This had a profound effect on my life in many ways. I was always the strange little girl at school, left out of conversations about TV programmes I didn’t even know existed, and unaware of many nuances of popular culture that were ingrained into my peers. I remember being shocked that people thought my house was weird because we didn’t have a living room carpet (we had a wooden floor, which my mum would polish every month with an extremely odd machine that had headlights).

On the positive side, I discovered the joys of reading very early on. My parents started teaching me to read when I was two and a half years old – I remember the utter exhilaration of getting the word on the flash card right – and by the time I went to school I was a fluent reader. The teachers didn’t believe me until I proved it to them…

Mrs Trembath: “So which of these books looks nice, dear? Look at the pictures and see which one you’d like to try.”
Pippa: “Don’t you have any books with more words in?”
Mrs Trembath: “??????”
Pippa: “I can read, you know.”
Mrs Trembath: “Yes dear, I’m sure you can. Now which book would you like to look at?”
Strange little girl moves over to another bookshelf and pulls out a book at random.
Pippa: “How about this one – it’s called ‘The House at Three Corners’. I’ve seen it in the library but I haven’t read it yet.”
Mrs Trembath: “!!!!!!!!”
Strange little girl proceeds to read the whole of ‘The House at Three Corners’ to Mrs Trembath.
Mrs Trembath: “Mrs Hartigan, come and see this!”
Mrs Trembath asks strange little girl to read the book again. Mrs Hartigan looks on in amazement.

That was the first time I noticed my strangeness.

I spent a lot of time at my local library – Woodley Library, on Church Road. It moved to a new building close to the shopping centre while I was at university, but the original building was an old house with a terrapin-type extension attached. The children’s books were in the old house part, and that was my home from home. We were only allowed to take six books out at a time, so until I was old enough to go by myself I’d badger Dad to take me at least once a week.

Have Spacesuit Will Travel, by Robert HeinleinI didn’t just choose books, I lingered over them, I read them there and then, I ran my fingers along the spines, I talked to the librarians and asked them for recommendations. Quite often I’d ask random people which books they liked – I discovered science fiction that way. I must have read Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel at least twenty times. I went to the jungle and the Amazon and the ocean floor with Willard Price, to the moon with Tintin and the Olympic Games with Asterix, to ancient Spain with El Cid, to Where the Wild Things Are with Max and the Night Kitchen with Mickey…

At weekends and in the holidays, we lived in Dorset, in a remote village which didn’t even have a shop, let alone a library. I used to borrow books from everyone who had them. I read Mills and Boon (and didn’t understand it), Christian educational tales from the ex-missionary who lived over the road, PG Wodehouse, Thomas Hardy (didn’t like that much), Swallows and Amazons (wow! I wanted to be Nancy! which coincidentally and bizarrely was the name of the ex-missionary), tons and tons of Enid Blyton… then, when I was about 10, the mobile library started visiting the village once a fortnight. Suddenly the long summer holidays became so much more exciting…

I honestly think I’d have gone insane without the Berkshire and Dorset library services. I would certainly be a very different person. I remember the faces and voices and smiles of every single librarian at Woodley Library. I could draw you a plan of the shelves and tell you exactly where each section of books was located. In some ways I have more memories of that library than I do of my childhood home.

And now…

Now, in this time of austerity, my local council (Nottinghamshire) has just announced huge cuts in its library services:

  • Staffing cutbacks of 83.4 full time equivalent posts
  • Reduction of opening hours including one day a week for the bigger libraries, two days a week for the next level down
  • 28 smaller libraries to become “community partnership libraries” on reduced hours
  • mobile libraries to cut their visits to once a month
  • book budget to be cut by 75%
  • the life of a book to be extended from an average 5.4 years to 21.5 years

To quote Ross Bradshaw:

The cabinet member for culture, John Cottee, said that “we are committed to libraries being at the heart of the community”. If so, this is a heart attack.

Nick Clegg is very pleased with himself at the moment – he’s announced a package of measures to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds learn more and have more access to education. Without access to library services, that’s like sitting them at a fancy dinner table and shoving empty plates in front of them.

I’m speechless. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I feel sorry for all those strange little girls, and the normal little girls and boys, who won’t have the opportunities I took for granted.

If you live in Nottinghamshire, write to your council member to protest. If you live elsewhere in the UK, write to your council member in support of your local library services. Do it now, make your voice heard before it’s too late.

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Just a quickie. Am off to Lumb Bank for an Arvon course on novel writing shortly. Doubt very much whether I’ll be blogging from there – it sounds like an altogether more serious proposition than Caerleon. I am taking many bottles of Diet Coke to keep me going.

Rebuilding my novel

I’ve had an interesting weekend. Been thinking an awful lot about writing, but not doing very much actual fingers-to-keyboard stuff. Jane Pollard’s course at Caerleon was excellent, and her critique of my synopsis and first chapter was really useful. However, as a result, I’ve realised my novel is a smouldering ruin. My main character is unlikeable (I like her, but there’s no reason why the reader should, she comes across as a whinging miserable cow) and my plot has some serious problems. I’m not quite sure where to start the reconstruction exercise. Hopefully Bill Broady and Gwendoline Riley, the tutors on the Arvon course, will help.

Reading for fun

Just recently I’ve been trying to read Good Uplifting Novels and Short Stories to Make Me Think. It hasn’t worked. All that happens is I switch off, or get too involved in analysing and critiquing what I read to take in the story. Last night I got fed up with reading and re-reading the same page over and over and over again to try and work out what was actually happening in the characters’ lives, so I picked up the first book in L.E.Modesitt’s Recluce fantasy series. This is pure escapism, not brilliantly written but not so awful that I can’t read it, and a thumping good story. I’ve had the first 14 books in the series for over a year now, but haven’t embarked on them because… well, I don’t know why. Newly-acquired literary snobbishness, I suspect.

So, is it OK for a writer to read stuff like this? I don’t intend to write for this market, I don’t think I could. But sometimes I need to switch my head off.

Anyway, that’s about all I’ve got time for. Need to finish packing…

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Paper vs pixels

Do you prefer to write with a pen or typewriter, or using a computer? And do you prefer to read a real book, or are you happy with an ebook reader?

Things change

I’ve written before about character development – I don’t agree that writers should start by knowing everything there is to know about their main characters. I’m not just being lazy, I tried it a couple of times and discovered that as I developed my story, the characters changed to fit the situation and the theme. And of course, the situation changed to fit the theme and journey, and the theme changed to fit the characters… you get the idea. So spending hours and hours getting into the mind and history and subconscious of my characters was a waste of time. Well, maybe not a waste, but it would have proceeded a lot more smoothly if I’d thought them all through at once.

The Waterfall Process is BAD

I have a horror of fixing things in stone that stems back to my days as a software developer. We used to follow the ‘waterfall process’ (in a vaguely uncontrolled way)…

  1. Write the business specification which describes what the client wants. Well, what they say they want.
  2. Write the analysis document which describes the functionality you plan to give the client. This is what you think the client wants – not necessarily the same as the business specification.
  3. Write the system design which describes how you’re going to provide the functionality. This never quite matches the analysis, and always moves further away from the business specification.
  4. Develop the software which usually provides a whole different set of functionality.
  5. Test the software against the business specification, to which it now bears no resemblance.
  6. Give it to clients and do a lot of fast talking to persuade them that it’s exactly what they need.

This model isn’t in favour much these days, but the issue of scope creep still rears its ugly head. It’s perfectly reasonable for developers to suggest improvements or make changes to work round problems, and it’s also reasonable for clients to have second (or third or fourth) thoughts about what they want. However, if developers don’t keep going back and changing all the documentation to match, you end up with a pissed off QA team. They keep raising bug reports only to be told, ‘Oh no, we changed that spec.’ And they get cross. As far as they’re concerned, your story isn’t consistent.

This explains my sense of deja vu when I realised my radio play didn’t meet the specification. I’d followed the process of developing my characters, identifying the theme and journey, writing the story summary, then getting on with the scenes. It didn’t work. I had fixed the characters and the story by writing them down in great detail, and I found myself writing scenes to conform to the work I’d done.

Once I let myself think outside those constraints, everything fell into place. All the story elements fed into each other, rather than trying to fit pre-cut jigsaw pieces together I was changing the shapes and smoothing the edges to make them connect effectively.

So I wrote a play that was internally consistent, flowed well, reflected the story I was trying to tell. And I was left with a character summary and story summary that didn’t match the final scenes – so I’m going to have to go back and change them for the portfolio. If I didn’t have to hand them in I’d just throw them away (same as we used to do with old analysis and system design documents).

Words are ephemeral, till you write them down

I was on a boring training course once. Can’t remember what it was about. I did what I always do in those situations – I doodled, and I found myself writing thoughts and ideas down. I watched the words forming on the page, and had a weird kind of out of body experience. Maybe it would be better described as an out of mind experience – it seemed as if the words were appearing from nowhere onto the page, becoming real. My thoughts were escaping to lead lives of their own.

Once you’ve written something down on paper, you can’t erase it completely without destroying the paper. If you type it into a document, it will appear on the screen but can be just as quickly removed, leaving no trace. Words made with pixels don’t exist in their own right. Words on paper do. Words in your head don’t really exist either. You’ll forget them if you don’t write them down, and you’ll be left hoping something will trigger their return.

The ephemeral representation of thoughts and ideas is exactly what I need to ‘plan’ my writing. If something sticks in my memory, it’s probably worth remembering. If it triggers lots of wild associations, so much the better. If it doesn’t work, I can rub it out without feeling guilty about wasting paper or destroying words. (I do have a horror of destroying written words that stems from my lifetime love affair with books.)

On the screen is even better. I can shuffle sentences and paragraphs around till they fit, I can create and destroy, I can delete the lot and start with a clean sheet if I need to. I can revert to a previous state of affairs, I can make global edits. I can flit around my document(s), working on whatever I feel like working on. I can create links between various aspects and make sure everything connects up.

What about reading?

When it comes to writing, I’m a pixel girl every time. Given the choice of a real proper book or an e-book, however, I’d go for the former. I do have a Sony e-book reader, which I raved about for a while, but I have to admit I’ve gone back to reading mostly printed books. Part of it is the limited availability of the books I want in e-book format, but much of it is the solid comfort of opening up a block of paper to find words that won’t change on pages I can feel. I guess when I go on holiday I’ll appreciate the reduction in volume of one Sony Reader compared to 10 hefty paperbacks, but otherwise I think I’ll probably stick with real books.

The permanence of words printed/written onto paper, which gives me such problems as a writer, reassures me as a reader. Isn’t that strange?

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Oooo, I remember writing up experiments at school…

Equipment

  1. A huge pile of unread ‘how-to-write’ books.
  2. A handful of red pens.
  3. The realisation that simply owning a book is not enough to transfer the subject matter from page to brain.
  4. A hopeless addiction to spending hours a day reading epic fantasy serieseses.

Method

  1. Finish reading current epic fantasy series.
  2. Do not start new epic fantasy series for at least a month.*
  3. Instead, pick up nearest how-to-write book and read that.
  4. Mark interesting passages with red pen.
  5. Think about what you’ve learned and how to use it to improve your writing.
  6. Record positive and negative effects.
  7. [optional] Write a blog post about what you’ve learned.

* Bugger! I’d forgotten I’d said I’d do this for at least a month! I was just about to cave in as well… I guess as I’m half way through I might as well carry on.

Results

Positive:

  • I’m learning an awful lot more than I was before, when the how-to-write books were simply lined up on my windowsill waiting to be read.
  • It’s entirely possible that my writing is improving, but I’ve got no idea if that’s true. It feels as if it might be though.
  • I’m building up a set of techniques to deal with situations I was struggling with e.g. reading Syd Field’s book helped me with my radio play.
  • I’m reading more of the stuff I’m trying to write – poetry and short stories – this can only be good.

Negative:

  • I really struggle to get to sleep at night without my usual soporific few/many chapters of sword and sorcery. For instance, I was awake till nearly 4am last night.
  • I seem to be substituting graphic novels for fantasy – I can kind of justify this as one of our teachers told us to read some… :-\
  • Reading has started to feel like work, and I sometimes find I don’t want to do it. That’s Not Good.

Conclusions so far

Well, I’m only half way through the experiment so I’m not going to draw too many conclusions. One thing that has sprung to mind is that I’d be better off stopping myself watching TV – I’m hooked on all sorts of rubbish. (I can’t believe I said that, I’ve been busy not admitting it to myself for months, trying to kid myself that quitting Casualty, Holby City, NCIS and CSI was enough)

I’m a bit concerned about the disruption to my sleep patterns, I hope that will settle down soon. Apart from that, it’s great to be gaining knowledge at my current rate. So the experiment will continue, for now at least.

Of course, writing this blog post has been pure procrastination – there are loads of competition deadlines coming up and I’m bored with polishing mediocre poems and stories in the hope they’ll sparkle enough to catch the judges’ eyes…

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Reading

(No, not the town in Berkshire, which is coincidentally where I grew up.)

All writers need to read. How can you find out how to write and what to write if you don’t know what other people are writing, what’s been written already, what is shouting out to be written about?

I am primarily a reader – since my parents started teaching me to read (using flash cards, which I still remember) aged two and a half I have been addicted to reading. Literally – I once went a couple of months without reading very much and the withdrawal symptoms were horrendous. I think I was verging on psychotic by the time I realised what was wrong with me. Apart from that short period of time, I have probably averaged five or six books a week, every week. I read a lot. However, I’m coming to the conclusion that much of my reading isn’t directly useful to me as a writer.

Reasons to read

There are many reasons. Here are some, and they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  • To escape from reality into another world.
  • To find out about a particular subject.
  • To see how other people write.
  • To challenge your ideas about the world.
  • To look for inspiration.

Most of the reading I’ve done up till I started my degree course has been very much for the first of these reasons, and no other. I have shied away from non-fiction, as a rule I’m too lazy to concentrate on every word I read unless I’m extremely interested in the subject, which isn’t often. I’ve avoided short stories because they’re over too quickly. Poetry has also been a no-no for that reason, also because it takes a reasonable amount of mental effort to get the most out of a poem.

Why I need to change my reading habits

It is foolish of me not to read the type of writing I’m trying to produce. How can I understand what makes a good short story if I don’t read a wide variety of short stories? Where am I going to learn the many and various techniques a successful poet needs if I only skim-read a few poems? And how am I going to study creative writing effectively if I rely on my teachers to tell me all I need to know?

I have a windowsill lined with creative writing textbooks and books of poetry and short stories bought since I started the course. (Amazon Marketplace is a wonderful thing – not many of these books cost me more than 1p + £2.75 postage.) There must be over 50 of them. And how many have I read? Well, er… not many. I’ve started a few. Ironically, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the poems and stories I’ve read, so why not read more?

The problem is, when I sit down to write, I write. When I settle down to read, I’m in a different frame of mind entirely. I’m expecting the book to ‘take me away from all this’ in a way that requires no effort from me whatsoever. Which means that even when I do open one of my wonderful new books, I struggle to get any benefit from it.

The experiment

This is not a scientific experiment – no control group or double-blind or anything like that. But I’m going for it anyway. As soon as I’ve finished my current novel (the last in Greg Keyes’ excellent Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series) I’m going to limit myself to reading books from my windowsill for the next month. I shall start with Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ which has been recommended by many many people.

I will report back on my progress. If anyone notices signs of imminent psychosis in these posts, please let me know.

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