Saturday, 6 November 2010

Five misfits in search of literary recognition

Annie was having a bad day, Rob was nursing a cold and Linda looked tired. At least I wasn't on-call this week (had I really suggested at the previous meeting that we dress up for our Christmas meal: Rob as a parasitic worm, Chris as Karl Marx and Linda as a budgerigar? Oh, what a strange delirium being on-call induces.)

This evening Chris was reading another extract from his magnus-opus-in-progress Karl Marx and Careful Driving. Snuggled in a nook of the Black Boy pub, we all listened intently as Chris shared a little of this dazzling fusion of political philosophy, travelogue and autobiography: "... Stem the flow of ideas and the effect upon society would be similar to the effect on the Volvo were I to lift my foot off the accelerator. Although for a while the wheels would drive the engine, the vehicle's momentum would eventually be overcome by resistance in the form of wind, gravity and the friction of the tyres on the road surface. In the absence of a supply of fuel to the combustion chambers, or of fresh ideas to the debating chambers, antithesis no longer confronts thesis to produce synthesis. Whether mechanical or political, revolutions cease and progress comes to an end..."

Karl Marx and Careful Driving draws on Chris's experience as a self-declared misfit French graduate who becomes a driver of 38 tonne trucks. Chris writes: "... Some of the animosity I encountered was almost certainly due to the perception that I was different... people with a degree in French didn't become lorry drivers; they became teachers, translators or civil servants ..." As a French graduate who became a mental health nurse, I'm saying nothing.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Blossom and the Bee

The standard of blogs for the Severn Valley Authors becomes more witty with each post, from 'Five Writers In Search of a Home' to Chris taking out his frustrations on his computer.

We continued in this vein at our last meeting when Tony suggested that we dress up for our Christmas meal: Rob as a parasytic worm, Chris as Karl Marx and me as a budgerigar. I know I should follow Twitter but really.

Rob introduced us to the (revised) first chapter of his new book, 'The Blossom and the Bee'. The book begins with a bang - literally - with a clever description of the destruction of the twin towers. I loved the surreal parallel between the aircraft plunging into the tower with 'a stray dart embedding itself into the soft panel of a loudspeaker'.

The opening sentence was enigmatic to say the least and completely lost on me, although everyone else nodded in admiration when Rob explained its meaning. I still don't entirely understand 'I am the life form spawned when something that does not exist fails to come into being - the positive product of two negatives'. Rob wants his readers to be kept guessing which is something I enjoy in a book but I think that most people will give up if they find it too challenging.

In this first chapter, Jon, the main character, witnesses the destruction of the World Trade Center, forcing him to think about his own mortality and spirituality and the answers that his Jewish background may be able to offer. Later on in the story, Jon meets Willie Keel 'a survivor of the Holocaust death camps'. Both Jon and Willie are suffering from survivor guilt which Rob describes as 'Like a parasitic worm'.

It will be exciting to see how this story unfolds and how Rob manages to manoeuvre through the many twists and turns of a complicated plot.

Talking of twists and turns, we will be back on the road with 'Karl Marx and Careful Driving' next Tuesday at the Black Boy. I look forward to seeing you all there.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Ninth Step

Apologies for the lateness of the blog. Having been woken up at 2 a.m. by the usual drunken morons yelling in the street, I got up at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning with one of those 'sleep-deprivation headaches'. After spending over an hour attempting (and failing) to send a press releases about the Tenbury talk to the Tenbury Wells Advertiser, I did what any reasonable human being would do. I threw the computer onto the floor.

Accordingly I was unable to write this Blog on Sunday because the computer screen was cracked. They should make the bloody contraptions stronger so we can regularly throw them across the room with out necessitating expensive repairs. I am now £100 poorer - but I have a computer with a new screen and enhanced memory that allows me to send emails with press releases attached.

The Severn Valley Authors have found a new home, 'the snug' in The Black Boy pub on Kidderminster Road. We reunited on 5 October to trade the usual insults and discuss Annie's short story entitled 'The Sign'.

News: Annie has enrolled on a ten-week novel-writing course at Evesham College and is thinking about setting her first novel on the island of St Kilda. Tony announced that his article on the therapeutic value of writing has been published in the British Journal of Wellbeing, so I'm thinking of submitting an article on the therapeutic value of throwing a computer across the room. Rob's entry for the Bridport Prize, an annual competition that attracts some of the best writers in the country, was shortlisted in the top 100 out of 6,000 (see the entry on Rob's blog entitled 'Close but no Cigar' ( So congratulations to Annie, Tony and Rob.

Annie deserves congratulations too for her short story, an insightful, perfectly structured and thoroughly researched tale of a woman's escape from the brutality of a drunken and violent partner that was inspirational rather than bleak. Rob drew our attention to the expert build-up of tension as the narrator makes preparations for her escape while her partner snores upstairs. Linda's suggestion that the title should be changed from 'The Sign' to 'The Ninth Step' met with universal agreement. Tony's concern about the authenticity of the narrator's voice led to a general discussion point. How, for example, does one write a narrative from the point of view of a child? And if we wrote dialogue as we truly speak to each other, it would be unreadable. The art of writing lies in the author's ordering and interpretation of events and of the interaction of protagonists rather than an exact reproduction of them.

Annie has entered 'The Ninth Step' for a competition. I have little doubt that it would be accepted (and paid for) by a women's magazine.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Five Writers in Search of a Home

The wind from the north, channeled by the valley’s sides, funnels into a gale and rips the leaves from the trees. The leaf litter swirls like torn betting slips on a deserted racecourse until a shower matts it into clumps. Then the frosts come and the clumps sparkle as the moonshine breaks between the scudding clouds. Surely, autumn is the cruellest season to be put out on the streets.

But this is what has happened to Severn Valley Authors. The advent of a weekly Tuesday night quiz at the Arches means we are to be evicted from our meeting room. Commerce trumps art.

So in our final Arches meeting it was fitting that our very own master of ‘wistful’, Tony Gillam, was reading the second extract from his three-part work, The Softness of Heads. In this part the hero graduates to junior school, goes to a Hallowe’en ghost reading, has a bath and discusses with his older brother the merits of watching the Lunar landing on their Gran’s colour television.

Not the most gripping material, you may think, but in Tony’s confident hands the accuracy of the reminiscence and the way he prompts sparks of recognition to flash in the reader’s mind made this an enthralling follow-up to part one. How about this for a heart-tug: ‘At playtime I stood in the playground and ate the Lincoln biscuits which Mum had wrapped in a piece of wax paper torn from the loaf of Mother’s Pride.  She worried that, on these cold days, I might get hungry before lunchtime.  I felt the crumbs in my pocket, crumbs of mother’s love, wrapped in mother’s pride …’
We all congratulated the Garrison Keillor of Kidderminster on this one.

Chris was absent with man-flu (Get Well Soon, mate) so Tony was spared a forensic examination of his comma-splices and on this occasion the discussion focused on the subject of ‘voice’. On the one extreme Linda feels that it is impossible not to inject hindsight and experience into the supposed voice of a seven-year-old and that a reader would be foolish to expect the voice to be 'authentic'. On the other, Rob thinks that the writer needs to be consistent and if the piece starts in the naïve voice this should apply all the way through unless the writer signifies he is breaking out of it. Tony remained tight-lipped on whose advice he will take when he looks at The Softness of Heads again.

In other news: Linda and Tony reported on a writers’ networking event in Worcester they had attended with Chris on the previous Saturday. Annie is awaiting news of a recent submission to Mslexia and Tony circulated a copy of his article, Time to Write the Next Book which appeared in the British Journal of Wellbeing.

Severn Valley Author's is thriving now but, after an Autumn on the streets, who knows what may become of us.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The one after the summer recess

The Severn Valley Authors were reunited once more at The Arches with new pencil cases and satchels at the ready to start the autumn term. Well, sort of. Some of us had worked most of the summer keeping the wheels of industry, health and social care oiled (if health and social care can be said to have oiled wheels). Annie (the only schoolteacher among us and thus the only one entitled to a proper Swallows and Amazons-style summer holiday) couldn't get enough of classroom pursuits and had been off to Writers Summer School (see her previous blog post).

And so it was that we gathered to discuss Linda's untitled piece. This had been entered for the Birmingham Book Festival's Short Story competition and we spent a short time licking our wounds since neither Linda, Rob or myself had been successful. It was also noted that none of the group had been successful in The Guardian Short Story Competition a few weeks earlier. This general lack of success was positively re-framed as (a) indicative of immense perseverance on the part of group members who risk repeated failure by entering competitions and (b) proof of the truism that short story judges' decisions are purely a matter of personal taste and therefore shouldn't be taken to heart.

Linda's untitled piece had been shaped into a short story for the purposes of competition entry but had originally been conceived as part of the novel-in-progress A Headful of Budgerigars. I found the piece lyrical, affectionate, humane, full of perfectly-chosen words, with musical, rhythmic sentences and poignant psychological observations. Rob described it, aptly, as elegiac. For me, it captured the atmosphere of a funeral and the unanticipated family dynamics and even unexpected humour that these situations can provoke. From a writer's point of view, it made me reflect on the differences between a short story and a short extract of fiction - not necessarily the same thing, though there are examples of short stories that went on to become the first chapters of novels.

We may not have won any competitions this month but Linda's beautifully- crafted poetic prose is, a far as I'm concerned, a successful piece of writing. As long as we continue to write and hone our craft we can't really go wrong for, to quote Richard Bach, a professional writer is really no more than "an amateur who didn't quit."

Monday, 30 August 2010

The one before the summer recess

Tuesday 27th July 2010

The Severn Valley Authors met at the Arches to discuss another chapter from Chris's book 'Karl Marx and Careful Driving'.

Chris was picked up on his choice of sentence construction in the first paragraph.
Outnumbering the tractors in rural areas, where manual rather than mechanical labour still predominates, the horse and cart is a form of obstruction frequently encountered and roundly cursed on Poland’s main roads. A number of members agreed that the subject of the sentence (the horse and cart) coming so late in the sentence effected its flow.

Chris's Orwellian quote that 'some animals were after all more equal than others,' did cause me some confusion because I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of it. The other members agreed that there should be no dumbing down. Oh if only I could be as equal as the others.

There was also much discussion on how much 'heavy material' should be included. Rob asked for more showing rather than telling. He was particularily keen for an encounter with a 'suicidal pedestrian' and felt that anecdotes like these would contrast well with the complex sections. Members were still keen to hear more of Chris's experiences of life on the road. Chris assured the group that he had many of these still to add and was trying to get the structure of the academic material organised first.

I am and so I suspect are the rest of the group in awe at Chris's dedication to this task and look forward to future installments.

With holidays and other commitments looming the group decided to take a summer recess. Tony told of his recent success: a short story accepted by Aquila, a children's magazine on the condition that it was reduced by several hundred words. It was agreed that Tony would send his story on email and the group would make suggestions in order to reduce the word count. It would also allow the group to tick over during the summer.

Congratulations also to Rob for his entry 'My Dedication to Joe Crane' which secured him a plaque from Centro Mallorca.

I went away to Swanick Writers' School over the summer and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone. One guest speaker Roger Ellory gave some very useful advice on getting published and I have included the link for you here:

Looking forward to seeing you all on Tuesday.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

After Dad Rattled the Skeletons in our Cupboard

This evening I went for a run with my friend who is in her sixties. She runs half-marathons and rings around me. I have always adhered to the theory that if one works hard enough then anything can be achieved. This rule does apply to running where the time and distance can be improved on (if only fractionally) week by week. If only this theory applied to writing, then Rob's book 'The Spaniard's Wife' would be an enormous success and quite rightly so. It seems, however, that unless you are Jordan or Peter Mandelson - a combination that makes me grimace - that a magic ingredient must be found to achieve this success; maybe a twist in the tale, an unusual story, a controversial topic, catching the right wave, or a liberal sprinkling of fairy dust. Rob has several of these assets, certainly the twist in the tale, an unusual story and the controversial topic of corrupt politicians. I just hope that he has a good supply of fairy dust with which to enchant a publisher because such a polished book deserves to be published.

As an enticement to the reader to buy and read his book, Rob has submitted a short piece for The Guardian Family called 'After Dad Rattled the Skeletons in our Cupboard'. He shared this latest offering with his fellow Severn Valley Authors last week at The Arches. With Parliament as a backdrop, Annie wittily suggested changing the title to 'Skeletons in the Cabinet' which we all applauded. Chris and Tony suggested using this piece as an introduction to 'The Spaniard's Wife', which I thought was a good idea because I found the current introduction rather confusing. We had a discussion about the use of 'may' and 'might' and decided that 'may have become Prime Minister' should have read 'might have become Prime Minister' because he didn't, eg. 'you may have a biscuit' as opposed to 'you might have a biscuit' - if I decide to offer you one!

My grandfather had local celebrity status for growing the largest marrow and producing the best rhubarb champagne for the village show - he even had his photograph in the local newspaper. This all seems rather small fry in comparison to Rob's possible pedigree. My grandmother, like the Spaniard's wife was dark and tiny (4'10") and as neat as a button. She was a softly spoken woman who lived for her family. Mary Ireland was a firebrand, a strong politically minded woman who sacrificed her family for the love of John Wheatley and his politics. This happened before women had the vote and when such adulterous behaviour was seriously frowned upon, especially among the working classes. John and Mary had both fought their way out of poverty and improved their lot, and certainly couldn't be described as the average couple.

What if Rob's grandfather had been John Wheatley, the cabinet minister who could have become Prime Minister but for his scandalous life, rather than the Spaniard described as 'a drunkard and a waster'? Had this been the case, we probably wouldn't have been sitting in the pub with him discussing the hard road to recognition. The magic ingredient would have been his birthright; with wealth and notoriety, who needs fairy dust?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Annie pulls the rabbit out of the hat

Misdirection: the art of distracting the audience while you perform your 'secret move'.

 Annie presented her story, The Knife Edge on June 22. There was so much to praise and yet the game of ‘punctuation-pedantry’ (in which members of the Severn Valley Authors could represent Great Britain) was still enthusiastically pursued. Happily, the suggestions regarding: comma splices, hyphenation and use of inverted commas failed to detract from our enthusiasm for what was a top-notch tale.

The story was an ostensibly simple one with a young male protagonist, Jay, who lives a ‘sink’ life where his only escape is found at the bottom of an adhesive-smeared crisp packet. He finds a role-model who trusts him but, as the story progresses, the reader’s heart sinks when it appears Jay is going to betray his new friend and backslide into his old solvent-addicted life. Annie gave us a sympathetic character, provided him with a route out of drug-abuse and appeared to be dashing our hopes that he would take it.

Happily, Annie put a twist in the tail. In an uplifting final scene, Jay, is using the stolen solvent to save the day. ‘He had chosen a different way to make himself heard.’

When, as a reader, you have been misdirected so convincingly it becomes important to re-read the story and see how the author did it. In this case, it was necessary for Jay to break some rules and abuse the trust of his friend to put his redemption plan into action. We were set on the path of believing he was back on the slippery slope. Some clever ambiguous phrases and words opened us to the interpretation that solvent abuse was the answer to Jay’s problems and he needed it to ‘erase’ events from his mind. Annie was misdirecting us to insert the word ‘abuse’ into our interpretation. Jay’s real intention, as revealed in the final paragraphs, was to use the solvent for its proper purpose – a crucial, emergency cleaning job – this was Annie’s ‘secret move’.

So an excellent job by Annie, with some truly innovative and memorable similes. The consensus was that The Knife Edge is a potential competition winner.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Eleventh Hour

The Burning Fence Festival

It is not the passing of the years that ages a man but the surrendering of his ideals.

And as I read Tony's submission 'The Burning Fence Festival' I was reminded of the above quote. Tony's story centres around a man who was too poor to go to music festivals during his youth. In later life when he did have enough money to go it seemed that it was too uncomfortable and the that the idea of queuing for a lavatory was intolerable. The queuing is the easy bit so I've heard.

The protagonist's daughter convinces him to hold his own festival in his garden. It was interesting that no reference was made as to whether our character was discussing the subject with his son or daughter but the group all wrongly assumed he was talking to his son.

The festival is a great success and the climax to the evening is the garden fence burning down.

Linda described the story as a light read that was a gentle family piece. Rob stated that this was Tony at his wistful best. Chris thought it was pleasing writing but did have a little moan about the words 'nice' and 'nicely' as he thought they had been over-used. I was thrilled that at long last there was a climax.

The was a long debate about whether it should be 'oblivious of' or 'oblivious to'. Tony was later to clarify this will the following information. The usual preposition following this word is of (oblivious of the people around her), though to is sometimes used, especially with inanimate nouns (oblivious to the difficulties). Purists have objected to the use of oblivious to mean 'unaware', but this sense is now common and widely accepted.

Everyone agreed that the dialogue at the end of the story was excellent - both well paced and humorous. A very enjoyable piece Tony.

Thursday, 27 May 2010


The unenviable task of following Tony's entertaining entry about last week's meeting and the Local Author's Fayre has fallen to me.

This week it was Linda's turn to submit a chapter of her novel A Head Full of Budgerigars to the unforgiving scrutiny of the Severn Valley Authors. Entitled 'Tiger! Tiger!' the chapter dealt with a visit to America by Lily's cantankerous mother. As usual, Linda's writing was full of some wonderful imagery and descriptive phrases but we agreed that the two pages describing Lily's husband and the town in which they lived might better be reserved for use in a separate chapter.

I felt that she could make more use of dialogue and direct speech as a means to describe and develop her characters and illustrate the conflict between them. Dialogue (written as opposed to spoken) is an area in which Linda lacks confidence, but expertise will come with practice.

Changes in a recurring nightmare about a tiger that eventually lost its power to terrify were skilfully used to symbolise the shift in Lily's relationship with her mother during the holiday. Rob stated that the chapter was very evocative of time, place and people. We discussed the classic story line of 'opening, build up, climax and resolution'. Rob, who had fully recovered from the horrid life-threatening disease that afflicted him last week and is reading Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is particularly hot on punctuation at the moment. He pointed out that a comma was needed between 'fat' and 'pink' in 'a fat pink tongue'.

We it came to the use of italics, however, we were obliged to consult The Oxford Guide to Style. Then we argued amically about the appropriate position of the apostrophe in possessives ending in s: "Ed Ricketts' House" or "Ed Ricketts's House"? 'Use 's after non-classical or non-classicizing personal names ending an s or z sound,' states The Oxford Guide to Style. Nevertheless it goes on to state in a more conciliatory tone: 'Convention allows latitude in possessives (e.g. the additional s is used more in speech than in writing).'

Thank God for that. I'm all for latitude - particularly when it comes to speed limits and the drivers' hours regulations.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

All is fayre ...

words Anthony Gillam
photo Phil Richards

It's been a hectic week for the Severn Valley Authors. On Tuesday we gathered for our usual meeting where Chris presented his most recent extract from Marxism and Careful Driving. Rob was feeling somewhat under the weather with some dreadful contagious disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or some such malady. Perhaps it was even just the common cold. Whatever, Rob felt it necessary to sit at a considerable distance from the rest of the group which, for some reason, made us all behave like silly schoolchildren. There was some discussion about the nature of ‘skype’ (for the uninitiated , a software application that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet). After some inexplicable hilarity about the true meaning of the verb ‘to skype’, Chris read his extract which was greeted with extremely positive feedback from the other members of the group. Personally, I found Chris's piece a brilliant melding of high ideas with everyday detail. It seems to me that Chris is close to perfecting his experiment in blending a history of philosophy with a compelling road trip. Several members of the group felt they they would like to hear more from the perspective of the truck-driving narrator and I wouldn't disagree with this suggestion.

On Friday evening, the Severn Valley Authors reconvened at Perdiswell House in Worcester for the much-anticipated Authors’ Fayre. Chris, Rob and I were strategically positioned behind a pillar in a corner of the crowded room. Rob went into serious marketing mode, targeting every potential buyer for his novel Olympic Mind Games. Annie 'meeted and greeted' arrivals, managing to look relaxed and happy despite having spent the last few days supervising a school field trip. Linda helped Chris to man his stall promoting Chris’s epic velocipedic travelogue Why don't you fly? I managed to sell two copies of A Passenger in Time but Rob was the bestselling Severn Valley Author of the evening with a staggering three copies of Olympic Mind Games sold. Despite not being able to retire on our takings, it was an interesting evening that gave us an opportunity to meet fellow authors, young readers and even the organiser of the forthcoming Worcester Literature Festival. Linda Bromyard, whose idea this evening was, is to be congratulated for a successful and enjoyable event.

If I was heartened by the sale of two copies of A Passenger in Time on Friday, by Saturday morning I was to be living proof of the saying ' pride comes before a fall '. At a car boot sale, I happened upon a battered copy of my first book Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing selling for the princely sum of 25p. The full story will appear at once I've finished feeling sorry for myself. It's a funny old business this writing lark.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Kenneth’s Taste for Red

Every SVA member loved Rob’s short story written in a humorous style with captivating character descriptions. Rob had asked for our input having been unsuccessful in a writing competition. We tried our best but found it almost impossible to improve on what Rob had initially written. This led us to question what judges look for in a piece of prose. We decided it was difficult to define.

We are introduced to Kenneth Madeley, the third time winner of best wine in show in his local town competition. He is deliberating whether he needs more challenging opposition when he is unexpectedly elevated to the position of judge. Kenneth relishes the task. However, his judgement comes under scrutiny from a rather irate Mrs Mary McKellar demanding to know why he has declined to judge her wine. There ensues a comical conversation between expert and novice each standing up for their rights. Kenneth’s dogged determination to abide by the rules begins to waver as he becomes distracted by his admiration of Mrs McKellar’s physical attributes.

SVA members highlighted aspects of Rob’s narrative that particularly drew their attention: The double-entendre in the title, the excellent portrayal of Kenneth’s personality, the vivid picture painting the competition scene and Kenneth’s expertise as he performs each stage of the wine judging process.

Rob’s cleverly written prose draws the reader into the scene as the red-haired woman makes her dramatic entrance. Her unexpected shriek initiates images of shocked faces and sudden silence as all eyes are focused on Kenneth and the woman. The reader is then treated to an entertaining dialogue in which we learn about Mrs Mckellar’s Aunt’s potato wine recipe. “…….But I make it with Smash”, is no doubt received by the other competition entrants with incredulity. This is rapidly followed by, “You know, for mash get Smash off the telly.” Kenneth indignantly states that competition wines have to be made from original fruit and vegetables. The coup de grace comes at the end of the paragraph, “…..Certainly not packets of freeze-dried pebbles purporting to be potatoes”

Examples of the linguistic richness of the text are illustrated by: ‘...pushed his snout inside like a dog checking a dustbin….’(alluding to Kenneth’s checking the nose of the wine), ‘….she wrestled her bosom higher in her chest’, ‘Her pippin cheeks puffed…..’, ‘Her pink tongue slithered like a snake across her moist lower lip’, the description of the rolling of the Scottish ‘r’.

True to form, dilemma’s concerning punctuation were raised. On this occasion the subject was the use of the colon & semi-colon. The debate continues……..
Posted by Helen 080510

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Kennedy Question - with a hint of Clinton

Annie’s story The Kennedy Question is a rites-of-passage tale of a teenage girl considering her mortality. Annie composes easy-to-read prose which flows easily and this tale has a wistful, Gillamesque quality which any reader can empathise with.

The evocation of teenage years came through during Annie’s reading despite her having to speak over the increasingly raucous deliberations of the Bewdley Footpaths Association which was meeting in the other half of the upstairs bar at Arches because of a double booking. (I assume that any footpath marked out towards the end of one of their meetings is a meandering affair.)

The ensuing discussion (in our half of the room) identified a number of instances of excellent prose work. For example, instead of simply telling the reader that the narrator was too young to remember where she was when President Kennedy was shot, Annie informs us that the girl was, ‘perhaps … eating parsnip puree from a plastic spoon’. Or how about the same girl, recovering from a faint recalling that, ‘the cool tiles of the science prep-room stuck to my calf muscles’? Details ‘were no longer sketchy, they were stark’. There was much to admire.

Of course an SVA meeting would not be an SVA meeting without its members contributing advice regarding comma splicing or hyphenation. But on this occasion we were also able to indulge in some interesting speculation on how to wring the best comic effect from a schoolgirl fainting and falling onto her knees in front of a teacher in such a way that her head nudges into his groin leaving a lipstick smear on his trouser fly. (Annie assured us that this was a true-life story.) Robert’s miming of the scene from the teacher’s viewpoint generated gasps of horror rather than the serious debate about the mechanics of humour that he had intended.

For a few minutes, the footpathers were silent as they eavesdropped our authorly discussion.          

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Eighteenth-century thoughts on writing

by Anthony Gillam

In 1979, when I was an 18 year old English and French student, I was required to study 18th century literature. While I loved the satire of Voltaire, the humour of Henry Fielding and the lyricism of Keats and Burns, I'm afraid the cleverness of Alexander Pope's poetry left me cold. I was very taken, though, with some prose he wrote on the nature of writing and I copied it into a little red notebook. The other day, I found the notebook (that I have had for a mere 30 years) and thought it was time to share these words of wisdom that have survived a rather more impressive 240 years:

From The Works of Alexander Pope (1770)*
“I am inclined to think that both the writers of books, and the readers of them, are generally not a little unreasonable in their expectations. The first seem to fancy the world must approve whatever they produce, and the latter to imagine that authors are obliged to please them at any rate. Methinks, as on the one hand, no single man is born with a right of controuling the opinions of all the rest; so on the other, the world has no title to demand, that the whole care and time of any particular person should be sacrificed to its entertainment. Therefore I cannot but believe that writers and readers are under equal obligations, for as much fame, or pleasure, as each affords the other …

… I confess it was want of consideration that made me an author; I writ because it amused me; I corrected because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write; and I published because I was told, I might please such as it was a credit to please. To what degree I have done this, I am really ignorant; I had too much fondness for my productions to judge of them at first, and too much judgment to be pleased with them at last …”

*Full Title: The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. In Nine Volumes, Complete. With His Last Corrections, Additions, And Improvements: together With the Commentary and Notes of his Editor. London: Printed for C. Bathhurst, W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, R. Baldwin, W. Johnston, T. Caslon, T. Longman, B. Law, Johnson and Davenport, T. Davies, T. Cadell, and W. and J. Richardson. MDCCLXX.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Tale of Gradual Inebriation at The Arches

On Tuesday 6 April we reconvened at the Arches to discuss Tony's latest offering, a short story entitled 'Kerry's Fleece'. The short story isn't a genre with which I'm overly familiar, and I asked myself what the point of a short story should be. To entertain, certainly; to inform, perhaps. These, however, are essential to all genres of fiction.

So why the short story? Annie told us that a successful short story is 'something you can read in under an hour and remember for a lifetime'.

Tony's short stories tend to act like the telephoto lense of a camera, bringing clarity, colour and detail to incidents that might otherwise be considered to be inconsequential. His writing is well constructed and controlled, his command of grammar, punctuation, description and dialogue assured. Nevertheless while I was reading, Kerry's Fleece, I found myself longing for him to abandon some of that control. I feel somehow that he tends to hold himself back when he writes, and the real Tony, the insightful and humorous Tony who appears at SVA meetings, is either subconsciously or deliberately kept separate from his prose.

Tony has an eye for descriptive detail, but I felt that Jason's encounter with an attractive teenager that led to an afternoon drinking session in her parents' house might have been given more psychological and sexual tension, perhaps by the inclusion of more dialogue between the protagonists, and the strong potential for humour in a scene depicting the gradual inebriation of two people was largely ignored.

Rob felt although that the story had a beginning and a middle, the end was anti-climatic and required a better resolution. 'Are you wondering why I've enticed you here?' (Kerry) would provide an unexpected change in the dynamic of the story and set up a final twist. Annie suggested that the unexpected reappearance of Kerry's parents from their holiday and finding their daughter in flagrante would have provided a more dramatic ending. The story ends instead with the sentence ' So Kerry put the peanuts in a little pan and warmed them through on the Aga and they ate hot nuts and drank wine as the sun went down.' The question uppermost in both Jason's and the reader's mind - whether Kerry is a nice girl, a seductress or manipulative - is left unanswered.

We all picked up on the allusion to Jason and the Golden Fleece, but we were unable to understand the point of it. In the legend of the Argonauts Jason trades the golden fleece for a kingdom and Linda wondered if Jason wanted a nice rich girl as the price for getting her fleece back for her.

Tony explained that the point was contained in that last sentence. The story is, of course, about 'Jason and the Aga nuts'. We all groaned. All successful puns should make one groan, but is a single pun powerful enough to provide the raison d'etre of a short story? Rob pointed out that the danger of this approach is that if readers don't get the pun, they won't get the point of the story. Although the pun deserves inclusion, the story needs to have an alternative raison d'etre than to provide a groan at the end.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Rowan Tree

The meeting was short and rather sombre. Chris did not attend due to a family bereavement. Our thoughts are with him.

Linda read ‘The Rowan Tree’ another extract from her novel ‘A Headful of Budgerigars’. The humour and vivid descriptions blended to create a piece that elicited many positive responses from the members that were present. Rob described it as ‘a near-perfect piece of writing’. One particular description ‘fairies dancing in wisps of silk the colour of a starling’s egg,’ delighted all. Linda revealed that this ornithological reference had come from a paint swatch card rather than a guide book to British birds, proof enough that the aspiring writer should always be ready to collect interesting and unusual expressions from a variety of sources.

As with all meetings of the SVA there was much discussion over the finer details such as the use of hyphens: zigzagged, harebrained and whitewashed all came under scrutiny.

Linda had continued editing and so the version that had been sent out and the version she read from had minor differences. There was a unanimous vote to keep in ‘checking for poos.’

The chapter ended with a surreal and dramatic paragraph – another excerpt from one of Lily’s dreams. This technique is working well and I am looking forward to the next chapter and its ending.

No -ly adverbs were used in the writing of this blog. Effortlessly, certainly and slightly were all totally annihilated from this passage. Having read the article ‘Those Pesky –ly Words’ I must admit that Rob may have a point. ‘I am certainly looking forward’ has become ‘I am looking forward’ and it is stronger as a result. I am willing to go adverb free as an experiment and see what happens!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Those pesky words ending in 'ly'

I posted something on my website blog ( about adverbs and it triggered a comment or two from fellow students at the National Academy of Writing. Fiona Joseph, who is writing a biography of one of the Cadbury family, posted the link which you follow by clicking on the title of this piece. All any writer needs to know about the use of adverbs in fictive prose.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Karl Marx Back on form

SVA welcomed Helen Jones, owner of Bewdley Books and novelist, as a prospective new member joining this meeting to try us for size. Helen settled in quickly and was an early contributor to the perennial SVA topic of the use of adverbs. She tended towards the there is nothing wrong with them; they add colour and can aid the rhythm of a sentence majority. (The pedants among you will have noticed that the words in italics should by rights have been linked by hyphens to form one Mother-of-all compound adjective but I couldn't be bothered.)  :)
We moved on to the meat in the meeting sandwich, the reading of an extract from Karl Marx and Careful Driving by Chris Smith. Everybody agreed that this is Chris's writing at its best. Here he achieved a balance between the threads of his complex project, giving us the 'knights of the road' narrative and travelogue interspersed with history and philosophy. Chris writes easy-to-read prose even when he is discussing mind-stretching stuff such as Plato's observations on the Eternality of Truths.
Tony contributed some ideas about typographical structure which we all agreed would improve the reader's experience. Linda described a picture of Chris as a conductor bringing in each of the orchestra's sections to achieve the symphonial experience which Karl Marx and Careful Driving could be.
Our forensic ears inevitably detected a few discords of either grammar or word choice and these were offered as constructive criticism. The general view though was that this extract was the model for how the whole book should proceed.
One question persists - does it mean it's an Eternal Question? Plato was strutting his stuff 2400 years ago so we describe his activities in the past tense. He believed stuff. But does this mean we should describe his beliefs using the past tense? This gives us 'Plato believed Truth was Eternal.' If Truth was Eternal it still is. In any event, when he believed, he did so using the present tense (I, Plato, believe Truth is Eternal.') so should we describe what he believed using the present tense? No definitive solution presented itself.
And there we shall leave our band of budding authors in the sparkling new luxury of the upstairs room of the Arches Bar discussing the eternal mysteries of prose ...     

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Blossom and the Bee

Rob introduced the first chapter of his new book for the group's scrutiny at this weeks SVA meeting. In The Blossom and the Bee, we see Rob writing in a completely different style to his previous novel The Spaniard's Wife. He shows enormous versatility in his move from the Glasgow tenements to a New York suburb. The first chapter is written in a very relaxed style that is easy to read and shows great promise, although at one point i thought i was reading War and Peace when every character seemed to have more than one name. The ideas that Rob has for the book are interesting and exciting, but i don't think this first chapter does them justice. I think that starting with an 'in your face' excerpt from Cabaret would be much more striking. It would have visual and emotional impact and set the scene for German/Jewish tension. Good luck Rob.

We also talked about competitions during the meeting and the recent competition run by Chapter One Promotions. I have read some very negative feedback on various websites about them. It seems they don't always let people know when they are winners and some winners do not receive their prize money. I will personally check out any future competitions more carefully.


Saturday, 6 February 2010

Blame it on Bizet

In a departure from the fictional offerings that usually form the centrepiece of a SVA meeting, Charlotte surprised us with a journalistic debut. It turns out Charlotte is an opera enthusiast and, when asked to produce a piece for the group's scrutiny, came up with a review of a live broadcast of Richard Eyre’s production of Carmen. Now I have to confess I have never liked opera so Charlotte's review might have left me cold. I do, though, always appreciate exuberant writing and Charlotte’s bold, confident style, her obvious enjoyment of this production and her surprisingly deep knowledge of the subject bowled over the whole group

It is notoriously difficult to write about music. A strange aphorism attributed to Elvis Costello argues that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture; it's a really stupid thing to want to do.” Charlotte, though, managed to write convincingly about the music and drama of this unusual cinematic experience of opera.

It is one thing to offer up a piece of writing for the consideration of the group and another to read it aloud in a pub. If she was anxious about this, Charlotte's strong, clear voice betrayed little self-consciousness.

Discussion ensued about the usage of 'amongst ' as compared with 'among' and Chris seemed particularly pleased with himself at spotting not only the occasional English grammatical error but a French one too. I blame Bizet.

The group were much exercised with the question of how much a delightfully youthful authorial voice should be tempered. None of us wanted to edit out that ebullience. One solution we hit upon was to put Charlotte forward for the presumably non-existent job of opera critic of the NME.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Sampling Dates and Figs Upstairs at the Arches

Waiting for the Speed-Dating Bell to Ring - spot food-diary man
Writing for laughs must be one of the most difficult skills and it seems to be one writers possess or they don’t. Judging by the reaction of members to Annie’s piece, Dates and Figs, she has the comedy gene. Each critic in turn explained how their first reading of Annie’s venture into speed-dating had them laughing out loud. Her David-Attenborough-esque pen-pictures of the species of male to be found in this particular jungle were brief, telling and very funny.

Our very own Helen Fielding was urged to find the right magazine and submit the piece tout-suite. Make some money out of it, Annie!

Of course, it wouldn’t have been an SVA meeting without some constructive suggestions for improvement. Most of these revolved around punctuation (what else), including: how to avoid the seven-word, compound adjective; the comma splice; the role of semi-colons; and positioning of commas and other squiggles vis-à-vis speech marks.

Under the heading ‘general-discussion’ we roamed around: the literary merits of Mills & Boon and Dan Brown; the motivation of Jeffrey Archer; and the vocabulary in writing for children. Rob failed to get any interest in an analysis of the value in modern writing of the verb ‘get’. Get this, it got forgotten because everybody was getting bored and wanted to get home.

Charlotte will be reading at the next meeting on February 2, when we may also hear from Tony’s friend, Phil Richards about possible involvement in a book sale event. Tony will confirm the start time.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

'Paws for Thought' by Rose

I wood like to sayyy that I am a little disa um.. disa $%ppoint?ed that my ayms for 2010 wurnt discust. I wont to bee offishal maskott for yore groooooop and tayke minits from Robbs lapp. I also wont to hav Bosun the bulldog over for tee becoz he iz very yumyum. Iff yoo wont to contakt meeeee on the Interpet yooo can sendd mee a pee-mail on

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Deep and Crisp and Even

The Intrepid Six also known as the Severn Valley Authors ventured out to an almost deserted Bewdley. It had been snowing for most of the day so we were pleased to find ourselves in the snug little alcove in the Arches. The Arches is Bewdley’s newest bar and bistro.

Tony then read ‘The Softness of Heads’. His mellifluous voice was the perfect vehicle for this gentle piece of 1970’s nostalgia. There was much discussion about the main character. Some members of the group thinking that there was a ‘Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ feel; while other group members did not make that connection at all. There was plenty of discussion about the use of apostrophes in trade-marks, split infinitives and whether mint creams needed a hyphen or not.

The dropping of letters in dialect also raised an interesting discussion point. Tony’s piece read as follows.
‘’id in the cupboard every time’.
At first there was the suggestion that the ‘i’ should be capitalised. It was then decided that the capital H was missing due to the character’s dialect and that the capitalisation did not need to be transferred to the ‘i’.

To finish the evening there was a short discussion about each member’s literary ambitions for 2010. The items were recorded and we will return to them quarterly to discuss progress. A brief synopsis is given below.

By the end of 2010 Chris wants to be ready to approach a publisher with the first part of Karl Marx and Careful Driving.

Rob hopes to have a publisher for the ‘Spaniard’s Wife’ and is also beginning to plan his next book – a three strand novel. The group was very interested and excited by Rob’s brief synopsis.
During 2010 Linda wants the first draft of ‘A Head full of Budgerigars’ completed. She also wishes to develop her business.

Tony would like to concentrate on polishing some short stories and marketing his book ‘A Passenger in Time’.

Attending university to study English and Drama was Charlotte’s burning ambition.

Annie would like to start a novel if only she could decide what to write about.

The venue worked well and it was agreed to use it again for the next meeting.

Monday, 4 January 2010

An unforeseen book-signing at The Woodcolliers Arms

Just before Christmas I visited Ludlow in Shropshire and called in at the Castle Bookshop, one of those wonderful independent bookshops which hopefully will continue to flourish despite the rise of Amazon and the fall of Borders. On my last visit, they had in stock five or six copies of my book A Passenger in Time and I naturally wanted to check that they were all still prominently displayed on the shelves. In fact, I could find no copies of my book so I cheekily asked the owner if he had sold out of my book.

“What's it called?” he asked.

A Passenger in Time.

“Oh, that's the one set on the Severn Valley Railway, isn't it? Yes. That sold quite well. Did you supply them yourself?”

“No. I think you got them from the wholesalers.”

He searched on his computer.

“Oh, that's right. I'll just order a few more copies then.”

Music to the ears of any self-published author.

Then, between Christmas and New Year, I was to be found in a local pub. The Woodcolliers Arms in Bewdley is not exactly my ‘local’, being over four miles from my house. However, since I drink there most weeks, I could be described as a regular. Roger, the landlord, had kindly agreed to display a copy of A Passenger in Time when it was first published several months ago. This unusual arrangement may have made The Woodcolliers perhaps the only pub where customers could buy a children's book with their pint of real ale. Week after week, I have sat nursing a pint of Ludlow Gold or Twisted Spire and noticed numerous people pick up my book and read it with interest, often discussing it with their drinking companion, before replacing it carefully on its display stand.

Last Thursday was different, though. I watched as a young lady went through the familiar routine of flicking through the pages and admiring the cover but was then amazed when she foraged in her purse for a handful of coins. I pretended not to pay much attention as she approached the bar and asked Anna, the landlady, if she could buy the book. Anna then discreetly passed the six pound coins to me, explaining that she could not put the money through the till. She asked if I had a penny change for the customer so I fumbled in my pocket and found a 10p piece which Anna then passed over to the customer. Next, I overheard her explaining that the author himself was here in the pub and, if she would like a personalised message written in her copy, Anna felt sure this could be arranged. The book buyer duly walked over to me and, with a mixture of embarrassment and delight, I wrote a few words on the title page for the kind lady.

These are strange days for the book trade with multinational bookshops going bust and pubs hosting impromptu book signings. There’s nothing for it, I’ve decided, but to take all of this as a good omen and hope that it's going to be an auspicious year for authors, publicans and independent booksellers in 2010.

Anthony Gillam