Monday, 29 September 2014

He who smelt it, dealt it

Remember this puerile little saying? I'd like to pretend I've not heard it recently, but my seven year-old is firmly in the scatological phase and shows no signs of emerging. In fact, this is one of the more polite comments he's likely to make at inappropriate moments.

The thing that fascinates me is the way we write the past tense of words like dream, smell, feel and build. On the periphery of awareness, I've noticed that sometimes, jarringly, I'll read things like "The room smelled like cabbage" and wondered if I was trailing behind in the evolution of language, until I discovered an intriguing online discussion.

What I discovered is that the distinction is one of those national things. In England, it's not only acceptable to use smelt over smelled, but usually preferred. In other countries, the opposite may be true; especially in the USA, people recalled being pulled up on using the 't' ending over 'ed', and believe it to be ignorant.

What do you think? Have you noticed this difference when you have read books by authors from other countries? Do you think it matters?

And would it be wrong to teach my other children, "He who says the rhyme, did the crime"...?

Friday, 26 September 2014

Grammar or pleasure?

How important is grammar?

With my teacher hat on, I was on at training course for the new curriculum. The information was skewed heavily to literacy - I have a feeling that the lady was in her element with reading and writing. 

I agreed with a lot of what she had to say, until we came to grammar. I'm sure we can all agree that it is important to write grammatically correct sentences, and then to employ proofreaders to try and catch all the mistakes that got away. But does a good writer - or a child, to be a good writer - need to know the correct terms for grammatical features? 

The lady swung right into action, throwing around terms like 'upfront adverbials' and asking us to determine if a sentence was compound, complex or simple (I'll give you a clue; compound isn't related to having the conjunction 'and' in it). 

Within five minutes we teachers were bored - a Mexican yawn passed around the room. I felt a pang of horror to think that we might tantalisingly offer our young minds something marvellous, like the Hobbit, to read, then strip it of all excitement by studying exactly what kind of sentences are in there. What's more, the trainer said this was crucial to be a good writer - but is it? Isn't it possible to write, to some extent, by instinct? To know how to use grammar without being able to name things correctly?
I was curious about my strong antagonism to what the trainer was saying. Was it just because I didn't know what she was talking about half the time? Was it because we all felt she was showing off and deliberately trying to make us feel underskilled? 

I love words. You have to, as a writer. As a reader, too, that rush of warmth down your spine when you come across the perfect pairing of words, and know what craft went into choosing them - it's priceless. I never talked down to my babies, with bunny or gee-gee. I figured, if they were going to use a word, they might as well learn the right one straight away. I offered tyre alongside wheel and explained the difference. I pull them up, still (though gently) if they use a word wrongly, or mispronounce something. So why don't I believe that children need to know what an upfront adverbial is? Why doesn't it bother me that, for years, schools have called conjunctions 'connectives', which, said our trainer, there is no such thing as? 

I think it's because, to me, the naming of these things doesn't add anything to what they are. Flower is generic; teach a child rose or daffodil and they have more power in their choice of vocabulary. They are enabled to communicate more effectively. Teach them Rosoideae and they are actually less able to communicate effectively except in exclusive circles. What you are really teaching them is how to make others feel excluded; it's jargon, and unnecessary. What it might do instead is turn hundreds of children off literacy - make it stale and dry. What a crime. If they don't need to know it, don't teach it to them. I don't believe for a second that it will make them a better writer. And if, as adults, they want to write for a living, and discover that knowing more grammatical terms will enable them to communicate better in online forums with other writers, or on courses to improve their writing - then it won't take long to learn. 


Let's try to leave some pleasure in reading for the digital generations. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fighting fear

Does fear of failure stop you from writing? I've been struggling to get back into my novel after the summer break, because I knew there was a lot of structural work to do. I was so overwhelmed, I've been avoiding it; I even cleaned behind the fridge.

But today I took my 2 year old and my notebooks to a play centre. I told myself a half hour would do, then I could stop, wherever I was up to. And, to my surprise, once I began it was painless. I didn't want to stop after half an hour, but then when I had finished my untangling, I realised it had only taken an extra ten minutes. All that procrastinating, and it was done in forty minutes!

As I unpicked and wove, I added in ideas that I've been jotting down all summer, and they began to take shape together and move the story in a better direction. It felt good; new ideas sparked and brought the whole to life.

When I put it down, I was fizzing with excitement. Today, my plot feels sweet; it is all singing in harmony. I'm still a little nervous about spoiling it when I try to capture it on paper but most of all, I can't wait to get back to it tomorrow.

So the cure for self-doubt is to push through it - must remember that next time! I wonder what the cure is for the guilt of putting writing time ahead of housework? And the guilt of letting my attention wander to made up people when it should be on my two year old?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

In praise of the adverb

I was reading The Welsh Girl (Peter Ho Davies) last night, and in the early pages I was struck by the description of someone as 'violently lonely'. There was something so wholly right about it, in context, that it made my skin prickle with delight.

What is it that makes a phrase like that so expressive? I'd argue that it's the addition of that beautifully chosen adverb 'violently'  - the perfect one, as it crunches too much to be a cliche, and yet has harmony, too. I set myself the task of trying to find a similar perfect pairing, and ended up reflecting instead on how delicate a balance it is.

For instance, look at the use of 'violent' and all it's aggressive connotations. Somehow, the addition of loneliness strips it of any threat in a way that many other pairings wouldn't. I tried to think about someone being violently sad, and my mental image was of ugly sulking and throwing toys out of prams.

I wonder if part of the beauty is in pairing words that have so little obvious connection..? I tried to think about being painfully lonely, but decided that that was too near a cliche, perhaps because it is so close to 'painfully shy'. That then discounted, for me, a whole raft of similar sensory adverbs, such as excruciatingly.

I toyed briefly with 'embarrassingly lonely', but the meaning changes so quickly then that the words risk whiplash. That would introduce a whole subtext (who is embarrassed by the loneliness?) and also, to me, it has a slightly comic flavour.

Which brings me to another thing - my perceptions of all these words is acutely subjective. Perhaps you don't 'see' the same thing as me at all in these juxtapositions - perhaps you like and dislike completely different ones. But it was interesting, exercising my brain to strive for alternatives that might be pleasing, and it challenged my vocabulary, too.

Have you ever found a particularly pleasing phrase in a book you've read? Can you find an adverb that can adjust 'lonely' in an even more interesting direction?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Holiday Reading

I'm still ploughing my way through Robert McKee's "Story", and re-plotting my work in progress as I read. However, I can't live without fiction, and as a nervous flyer I had to have a couple of gripping novels to hand to get me through a recent flight (well, any excuse will do).

One of the books I read was Liane Moriarty's Little Lies. I was deeply moved by another of her novels, "What Alice Forgot", which resonated deeply with my life at the time I read it. "Little Lies" didn't disappoint. It was a fascinating, pacy, humourful read - despite the fact it was about a murder. It takes an artist to handle the serious issues that Liane Moriarty raised, while still leaving the reader feeling amused and safe...She has a dry delivery that reminds me a little of Austen. There was an honesty that led to a few beautiful moments of, Yes! That is what life is like! too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

McKee says, on the subject of info-dump and backstory, that you don't keep an audience interested by telling them things, but by withholding information...until the right moment. Having just seen Liane Moriarty pull off exactly that, with aplomb, I really understand. Whether I can do the same is another matter...

Monday, 11 August 2014

Guernsey!

Victor Hugo was exiled to Guernsey, and while there produced some wonderful writing. Tomorrow we fly there for a ten day visit with my sister and her husband; let's hope the break and the peace are inspiring and that I can get some decent day-dreaming done while the children build sand-castles....

Mustn't miss life while I'm dreaming, either, though. Happy holidays!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Studying Story

During a recent workshop with the YA author Emma Pass she recommended that wannabe writers try Story by Robert McKee.
She did warn that she'd read it with a notebook to hand - and it does require some serious concentration. But she also said that it had revolutionised the way she wrote - changed her life, in fact. So I bought it, and am making slow but steady progress through it. It is primarily written for scriptwriters, but there is lots of useful information for all writers.
Anyway, in the summer holidays, which are frequently a bit of an involuntary sabbatical in my house, I have to find other ways to work. One of the things I'm doing is studying this book. Already some of the insights have affected the way I'm thinking about my work in progress, to the degree that, when I get five minutes, I'm not rushing to write, but hurrying to read the next part of this book.
There is, of course, always a danger that you spend so long reading about writing that you never write; but I'm also afraid of then discovering huge problems with my plot and having to go back and unpick things that could easily be put right now.
So, here are two thoughts from McKee's book.
 He talks about the 'craft' of writing, and its loss. "If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: "I've heard a lot of symphonies....I can also play the piano...I think I'll knock one out this weekend"? No....you'd head for music school to study both theory and practice...Too many struggling writers never suspect that the creation of a fine screenplay is as difficult as the creation of a symphony." I find it very encouraging, to know I'm not the finished article yet, never mind my work! And I also need the encouragement to push myself harder in order to be the best I can. It's easy to shrug and say, "That's the best I can do, so it'll have to do" when what I really need to do is say, "It's the best I can do at the moment, so I must get better"...
The other thing I've found fascinating is what he has to say about cliche (especially cliched ideas, rather than hackneyed phrases). This is something I worry about in my own work, and McKee suggests that the antidote is to know your characters and world inside out, and to explore those through memory, imagination and research. He says that those who don't know their world well enough, when they try to write about it,  'come up empty' and so they fill the void with experiences from TV, stories and movies, therefore coming up with familiar, cliched ideas. Some of his tips to combat that are really interesting, too, and I need to apply this to my work in progress and see what magic I can work, and if I can strengthen this weak area of mine.
I'm glad for this chance to improve myself, even though I'm not managing much writing time.