Saturday, 19 December 2009

Following on...

We gathered again, in festive mood, on 15 December for the SVA's Christmas meeting. The focus was on Linda's work - a revised opening chapter called Elderberry Wine. There was a great deal to admire in this and the consensus was that it made for an enticing, warm and gently comic opening to what promises to be a wonderful novel.
There was some discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of disguising place names. On the one hand, many readers are drawn to books set in real locations and an identifiable setting can make books more attractive and more marketable. On the other hand, if situations and characters are based partly on reality, disguising the setting can help avoid embarrassment and libel! As the old saying goes, "the names of people and places have been changed to protect the innocent."
Speaking of innocents, I innocently forgot how to access this blog and accidentally became a follower as well as a contributor. This caused some consternation as other members of the group got very excited, thinking someone in the wider world had cottoned on to us, only to find it was just me! It could seem the height of vanity to become one of my own followers but it was all down to blogging incompetence on my part. If anyone knows how to cease being a follower please let me know because, having become one by accident, I have no idea how to un-become one. Perhaps this is how we become and remain followers of most things in life.
Chris and Linda supplied hot mince pies and real wine (not just fictitious elderberry wine) and then we adjourned to a local pub where, it was suggested, we should hold our next meeting. It reminded me that, as a younger man, I had been a follower (again) of a group called The Anglo-Welsh Poetry Society who used to meet at the splendidly named Loggerheads pub in my home town of Shrewsbury. Hardly a poet myself, instead I would take along my guitar and perform some of my songs as a kind of musical interlude in the poetry readings. This seemed to go down well with the poets who were tolerant enough of a singer-songwriter in their midst. I'm not sure how I feel about reading aloud my short stories in a public house but Rob assures me we will have a (fairly) private alcove, and we will be cordoned off from the non-literary pubgoers. Perhaps, though, we will get some accidental followers?
Anthony Gillam

Monday, 14 December 2009

Karl Marx and Careful Driving

Apologies to my fellow SVAers for the lateness of this contribution.

At our last meeting we looked at an extract from 'Karl Marx and Careful Driving'. We can now see the enormous dedication that Chris has shown for this incredible work really coming to fruition. The journey, history, philosophy and Chris's personal history are intricately woven together to form a really fascinating and entertaining book.

It was said at at our last meeting that more information and storyline about Chris himself was needed to hold the attention of the reader. I agree, but I also know that there is more of this to follow.

I would like to see more colourful descriptions of the places and events that Chris witnessed on his journey when everything was a source of wonder and adventure for him. The readers are new to this experience too and would like to feel the thrill that Chris felt when he first opened 'The Children's Picture Atlas in Colour'.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Will Self and speaking without being interrupted

The author Will Self, in an interview he gave to Word Magazine in July 2003, made the following comments about writing: "What writers like myself have is that we're free of the constraints of a capitalist society in a way. We're liberated from the hierarchy. We don't have bosses. We're like coalminers. We produce a product - 'self-coal' - that no other mine can produce. We have our own stock, we mine it, we ship it, we flog it and nobody can f**k with it. And I think that idea of writers being an owner/proprietor/operator in a way is very appealing to people...."
No doubt many writers aspire to be free in this way but the reality is most of us fit writing in around the day job. Perhaps this kind of freedom is only available to the lucky few successful, published writers, but we can all at least take comfort in the words of Jules Renard who said of writing, "Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu - Writing is a way of speaking without being interrupted." In the hubbub of the daily grind, that sounds like a good enough reason to write for me.
Anthony Gillam

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Dark machinations, infidelity and intrigue: just another meeting of the SVA

Now we are six. On 17 November we welcomed Charlotte as a new member. Although unwell with the flu she persevered to the end of the meeting and even found the strength to make one or two acerbic remarks about Rob's latest two-thousand-word extract from 'The Spaniard's Wife', an account of dark machinations, infidelity and intrigue that traces a politician's path from Glasgow's slum tenements to Westminster.The extract displayed all of Rob's usual strong points: excellent command of grammar and dialogue, detailed research of his subject and expert development of characters and plot. I was unable to find any missing vocative commas but I enjoyed pulling him up on the use of the hideous 'comma splice' (the joining together of two sentences with a comma) and an even more hideous exclamation mark in the title of Chapter Three (War!).

If there was one criticism that received general agreement it had to be an absence of detailed discription of the environment in which the action takes place. Linda, whose work I think shows great descriptive flair, remarked that it was a little colourless and Tony felt that Chapter 3 skated over details. I thought that his descriptions of the Glasgow slums at the beginning of the twentieth century might be a little more Dickensian; take this example from the opening of Bleak House:

As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke) , adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin, fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of the shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Unfortunately the story of 'The Spaniard's Wife' isn't related by an omniscient narrator who has the luxury of being able to focus simultaneously upon the Essex marshes, the Kentish heights and the shivering little 'prentice boy on a ship's deck, but I hope you get the general gist: this is great descriptive writing. Dickens's attention to detail truly immerses the reader in Victorian London.

An interesting point of discussion was opened by Tony's remark that Rob's reluctance to use natural contractions such as wouldn't and isn't even in direct speech gave some of his dialogue a slightly stilted feeling. Rob replied that he had read somewhere that this was a device to be used if the reader was to get the impression that the dialogue took place several generations ago, but I found myself in agreement with Tony. The following extract from Bleak House (written in the mid-nineteenth century) doesn't bear out Rob's theory:

'Where would you wish to go?' she asked.
'Anywhere, my dear,' I replied.
'Anywhere's nowhere,' said Mrs Jellyby, stopping perversely.
'Let us go somewhere at any rate,' said I.
'I don't care!' she said. 'Now, you are my witness, Miss Summerson, I say I don't care - but if he was to come to our house, with his great shining lumpy forehead, night after night, till he was as old as Methuselah, I wouldn't have anything to say to him. Such Asses as he and Ma make of themselves!'

It is worth noting from this passage that Dickens - one of our greatest novelists - apparently endorses the use of the dash (Linda) and of adverbs (Rob).

Rob drew our attention to an announcement in the Parish magazine by another writers' group in Bewdley eager to recruit new members. Charlotte volunteered to go undercover and infiltrate their organisation as a mole and report back to HQ, but Rob suggested that if we treated them as friends rather than rivals we might be able to collaborate (at festivals, for example) and that he'd send them an introductory email.

We calmed down.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Cinderella in Cyberspace

Our newest member, Annie Tauk, brought copies of her prize-winning story to our last meeting. I've now had the opportunity of reading it and I can see why it won and was published in Writing magazine. It is humourous (always a difficult trick to pull off IMHO) clever and complete. Well done, Annie!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


Tony, who surely merits the soubriquet, 'the Garrison Keillor of the Wyre Forest', shared his short story, Delay. What to some was a gentle snapshot of domestic life was to others a feat of controlled disclosure where portents of an uncertain future arrived unheralded in the humdrum life of the protagonist. At first sight a simple story but one which, because of its hidden depth and haphazard punctuation, stimulated much discussion.
There is much to admire in Tony's writing, particularly its gentle tone and his mastery over mood and dialogue.
The critiques prompted further discussion on: the proper use of the word 'properly'; whether the vocative comma should be used in two word exclamations (surprising Chris's pet subject should come up despite his absence with Swine Fever); commas in general and semi-colons in particular; a mini-diversion through the swamp that is point-of-view; and the correct punctuation of reported non-speech (ie speech we were told did not happen).
An excellent meeting with much pedantry, spirited debate and Tony raising the catering bar to new heights with the provision of chocolate cookies with a chocolate coating on one side.
Tony also hit pay dirt coming up with a sentence where the inclusion or omission of the vocative comma changes its meaning drastically: What is this thing called, love?
Lovely Jubbly! (or should that be, Lovely, Jubbly! or Lovely jubbly!?)

Saturday, 31 October 2009

slithy toves

Rob points out that we should only break the rules when we have made a conscious and informed decision to do so. It could be said that some great writers have made breaking the rules their passion. James Joyce revolutionised the form and structure of the novel with Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake by pushing language to the extreme limits of communication. Lewis Carroll's books for children were also appealing to adults because of their inventive absurdity. The Jabberwocky commences 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves'. How did they get away with it?

It is not just the rules of language that we have to learn but also the uncertain sensitivity of our readers. Your best friend may very quickly become your ex-best friend after he has read your book. So do we compromise and please everybody or do we stick to our moral guns and tell it as it is? Did Lawrence ever imagine when he wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1928 that it wouldn't be published in full in this country until 1960?

I know that some of my stories about life in France and America will offend some people, but I try to tell the events, places and people as I saw them. In some ways - which I hope is becoming apparent - I am singing a hymn to England and to Shropshire in particular; a place that truly stole my heart.


Friday, 23 October 2009

Useful Epigram

I think this comment, apparently attributed to Bernard Levin, reflects SVA thinking on grammar and punctuation:

You can break every grammatical and syntactical rule consciously when, and only when, you have rendered yourself incapable of breaking them unconsciously.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Head full of Budgerigars

I think the role of the SVA should be the publication of its members - whether a novel or a short story in a magazine. It is a little unnerving to submit one's work to the examination of others but it should always be borne in mind that any suggestion or criticism is made with the objective of improving the work under consideration. One member's success should be considered the success of the entire group, and hopefully we can one day become a community of published authors.

Frequently I wonder what publishers are looking for (don't we all?). The cynic tells me that getting one's name and picture splashed all over the News of the World is a far more effective way of getting into the best-sellers' lists than writing something wonderful. I have come to believe that any work submitted by an unknown author has to have something that marks it out as being 'special'. It has not only to be well written and entertaining but have that 'X factor' that distinguishes it not only from the tide of rival submissions but also from books already written by established authors. The task confronting us is therefore extremely difficult but real authors will always continue to write because of the delight to be had in the process of manufacturing sentences and of communicating experiences and ideas.

On Tuesday 20 October we welcomed a new member to SVA - Annie Tauk. She arrived with the formidable achievement of having won the first short-story competition she had entered. Linda read out her latest extract from 'A Head full of Budgerigars', a novel set in the UK, the USA and France. It must always be borne in mind that whereas Rob and myself have been working for a considerable time on our respective manuscripts, Linda is still composing her first draft. As such her work has less polish, but then she has had considerably less time to edit it. I find her descriptive writing exciting, original, full of richness and variety, and humour is always present. The extract painted a wonderfully vivid picture of rural French village life in the Dordogne and was full of the sounds and smells and people on market day. Tony remarked that Linda's affection for France shone through and Rob looked a little uncomfortable when the extract mentioned the 'shagging' of the local mutts. I think that the dialogue needs a little working on but as with any craft the more one practises, the better one gets. I think that an advantage of belonging to the SVA is that its members all have different strengths and weaknesses and we can learn from each other.

When we got home Rosie Canus vividly expressed her disappointment at having been deprived of the opportunity of taking the minutes of the meeting and inserting her tongue into Rob's ear.

'Next time, Rosie,' we promised.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Karl Marx and Careful Driving

Few of us can match the enthusiasm of our latest recruit Rosie Canus. She leapt from lap to lap punctuating every sentence of Chris’s reading with a yelp of delight. She went so far as to lick Tony’s face when he congratulated Chris on his smooth connection from the Greek philosophy of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, through the Age of Enlightenment to the inner-workings of a Volvo diesel truck engine.
Chris’s project, Karl Marx and Careful Driving is a unique record of a truck-driver-philosopher’s trips to Kazakhstan back in the day. He treated the group to another two thousand words and the ensuing discussion ranged around: empirical didactic in non-fiction; the role of the author as pedagogue, pack-animal hierarchy and Rosie’s place in it, and the crisp yet yielding texture of Linda’s excellent chocolate brownies.
After the critique of Chris’s writing we moved on inexorably to punctuation and the role of the comma.
Severn Valley Authors is now a member of the National Association of Writers Groups and we also discussed ways to make its presence felt in the local arts community.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Spaniard's Wife

This week the group discussed the second chapter of Robert's novel-in-progress The Spaniard's Wife. All I knew about this was that Robert had described it as a work of 'faction', i.e. a novel woven around actual historical events. As the newest member of the group I had to do my homework and read the first chapter as well as the one under scrutiny. Far from the rather stately historical saga I was expecting the extract turned out to be a gritty, not to say brutally realistic depiction of 1912 Glasgow which reminded me of Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York. All quite a departure from Robert's children's book Olympic Mind Games. The Spaniards' Wife promises to be an impressive, wide-ranging and ambitious novel and we look forward to reading further chapters. Meanwhile, group members bemoaned how tired they were by - if not of - their 'day jobs' and the problem of finding the time and energy to write when writing is a sideline and not the main means of keeping the proverbial wolf from the door.
Trying to avoid sounding too bitter, Chris had a rant about Jonathan Creek star Alan Davies who was apparently heard complaining about how boring it was promoting his new book on The Simon Mayo Show. Robert also showed signs of world-weariness when the conversation ranged from Derren Brown to Dan Brown - one Brown had apparently successfully predicted the lottery numbers, the other had played and evidently won the booktrade lottery that day with the publication of The Lost Symbol - which, for all its commercial success, Mark Lawson in The Guardian described as "a puzzling, rollicking piece of tosh".
While all little-known authors lose the plot from time to time, the prize this week must have gone to Linda who - exhausted after a gruelling working week - came out with the idea that Arthur Ransome had just died. In fact, although a new biography had been published last month (which might explain why Linda thinks she has recently read about him in the papers) poor old Arthur died in 1967. It all goes to show it certainly isn't easy to hold down a job, write in your spare time and keep up to date with the latest literary news.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Drinking with Alphonse

Welcome to the SVA blog. Until last week I didn't really know what a 'blog' was. The internet was just a useful tool to send emails. Now I am faced with all sorts of dilemmas: can I blog and Twitter at the same time? Should I Google or should I Bing? Why would a search engine be named 'Dog Pile'? Anyway, my friends at the SVA have forced me into the 21st century, so here goes.

We meet every two weeks in the beautiful Worcestershire town of Bewdley, famous for its 19 pubs, 5 Indian restaurants and more litter than a McDonald's wheelie bin. The town is surrounded by beautiful woodland and open country and of course the River Severn.

Last week we discussed Anthony's short story 'Drinking with Alphonse', which I thought was a great title. The story revealed much about Anthony's mis-spent youth as a student in France. It was clear that he did more drinking than studying. The story threw up (excuse the pun) many topics for discussion: When is a short story not a short story? Must there be a beginning, middle and an end or indeed what we traditionally consider to be a plot? When is it permissable to break the rules? Rob thought it was, as long as you knew the rules and when you were breaking them. Can you introduce your main character - in this case Alphonse - half-way through the story? There was no real agreement on this, but I thought it was amusing and it kept my interest. Should there be speech marks around a thought? We thought not. And lastly one for the pedants to get their teeth into: How many dots should there be in an ellipsis? There was considerable discussion on this point, but I will let one of my more learned friends illuminate.

Please put your anoraks on and send us your pearls of wisdom on these topics and any others that you would like to discuss. Send all corrections to spelling and punctuation errors from this blog to someone you don't like.