Thursday, 15 December 2011

Aunt Cecily's Electric Kettle

Mince pies and mulled wine greeted us at Rob’s house, where we met on Tuesday, December 13th, to listen to Tony’s story ‘Visiting Aunt Cecily’. Quite how we found ourselves discussing the origins, use and pronunciation of the word ‘chagrin’ within five minutes of our arrival is not clear from my notes, but it may have had something to do with the wine. Annie added to the merriment with a demonstration of her uncanny ability to ferret out a double entendre from unlikely material.
When we’d settled down again, Tony read his 1500-word story in which the narrator, Aunt Cecily’s nephew, recalls his relationship with her, his visits to her house both as a child and as an adult, and a meeting at which he was coincidentally present, between Auntie C and her old friend, Dorothy Morton. The story enchanted us all: Tony had succeeded in creating a ‘sense of an era’ (Chris), and feeling of nostalgia. The microscopic detailing and imagery, especially the ‘dying rose’, attracted plaudits from us all. The piece was variously described as ‘warm’, ‘touching’, ‘moving’ and ‘quirky’ and no critique of a Gillam work is complete with at least one mention of Garrison Keillor and ‘whimsy’ and, sure enough… There was, however, a significant caveat which inhibited unalloyed approbation.
When Cecily’s old friend Dorothy unexpectedly arrived, Cecily displayed considerable disquiet – her demeanour was ‘different’, ‘slightly nervous’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘irritated’ – and we all wanted to know why. Tony couldn’t tell us. He was only a compere introducing his guests – whatever they had been up to backstage was none of his business: like Manuel in Fawlty Towers, he knew nothing. He actually started to say “My best guess is…” but was silenced by disbelieving howls of outrage. Chris in particular found this all this most unsatisfactory and, had Chris remembered to bring his Inquisition kit, Tony would undoubtedly have ended the evening an inch or two taller (than he was when he arrived) . A rowdy debate ensued, involving a Greek island, a poet called Sappho and Margaret Rutherford’s tweed jacket: yes, it was that kind of evening! After Rob somehow managed to drag Ngaio Marsh into this quagmire, he remarked that ‘it’s always a pleasure to read Tony Gillam’ and we whole-heartedly agreed.
The eventual conclusion was that, yes, the two old dears had probably shared a mutual affection that may conceivably have ventured beyond the Platonic: they had, after all, shared a flat in Birmingham (that notorious centre of lust and carnal venality), both been members of the arcane and possibly esoteric Elektra Club, and, to cap it all, had bought each other electrical appliances – for water, the boiling of. The kettle, a Premier Quickset, may indeed have somehow symbolised their relationship: the mind can only boggle. But how was Tony subtlely to convey this to his mystified readers – Annie had the answer. Old friend Dorothy would be introduced to the nephew as ‘Miss’ Dorothy Morton, thereby dispelling any lingering doubts (as the cliché has it). And that was that. One point of possible merit elicited by the discussion was that a short story can be compared with peering though a gap in a fence, insofar as the views to left and right of the gap are understood to exist but are invisible and cannot therefore be portrayed and whatever is happening there can only be guessed at, as Tony tried to point out. Short stories are fragments and a resolution is by no means a sine qua non.
The news, as can easily be imagined, proved somewhat anti-climactic. Rob had none, except that he is knocking out 2000 words a day, with which he’s unhappy (the quality, not the quantity) on ‘The Sting Inside’; Tony reminded him to contact Radio Scotland. Tony described how to write a dash, using ALT+0+151 (that’ll be the dash also known as a ‘Scouse accent’); this led to a confusing and desultory discussion which was too boring to merit description here. Chris handed out for distribution some leaflets advertising his talk at the Rose Theatre Kidderminster on Saturday, February 11th at 2 p.m. and Linda advised us to desist from employing the past continuous tense. (Filthy habit!) I had no news, and if Annie did, I failed to make a note of it: sorry Annie! She did, however, suggest that we instigate a Round Robin of 100-word stories for the Reader’s Digest competition, which closes on January 31st, 2012.
We agreed to meet next on January 3rd at Chris and Linda’s when Annie will read and Tony will blog, exchanged season’s greetings and stepped out into the night.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Gastronomie Française

Dancing 'widdershins'.
It seems appropriate that in our first meeting since we reversed the order of our unwritten table d'hôte we also enjoyed a digressive discussion on the word 'widdershins'*.  Annie, acting as maître d' led us through the hors d'oeuvres, in which we made the menu choices for our forthcoming  festive dinner.

Moving into the plat principal Linda read an extract from Chapter Ten of her novel A Headful of Budgerigars. This tickled our taste buds on so many levels – the humour, the tempo and the dazzling special effects in her prose . Linda's flair for descriptive writing was shown au bon effet in her filmic account of a Gallic Hunter's Feast where the gourmandise of the natives was contraposed against pithy observations from and between a small group of British parvenues.

Pour dessert, we moved into what has previously been our entrée (in the European more literal sense rather than the American) and shared news of our literary successes:

  • Linda is shortly to endure/enjoy (delete as appropriate) her first mentoring  session under the Gold Dust programme. 
  • Chris is reworking his article for inclusion in a New Zealand-based denunciation of flying as a sustainable means of travel and continuing his successful British tour of the Why don't you fly? talk. (I know this sounds contradictory but it isn't.) 
  • Clive has been a very busy bee, although he denies it. In addition to penning his regular  'Grumpy' columns he has written an article on hops, is working on a piece on the part music plays in memory and is writing for a start-up Internet radio station. 
  •  Tony has entered the BBC 'Opening Lines' story competition with The Idea of Marmalade and has had an article called Readers Turned Writers printed in the Malcolm Saville Society's magazine. 
  •  Rob has entered the same BBC competition as Tony and is not writing his novel as quickly as he should. 
  •  Annie under pressure of school commitments is working on the piece she is going to read in our first meeting in the New Year.
So SVA moves into la fin de l'année 2011. With only one more meeting in December, now is the time to wish Bon Chance and Joyeux Noël to all our readers.

*Widdershins: Moving in an anticlockwise direction, contrary to the apparent course of the sun (considered as unlucky or sinister); unlucky, ill-fated, relating to the occult.” (OED, see also withershins.)

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Madness or Sanity

The Reader:
This week we met at Annie's house to critique Chris's 'Madness or Sanity', and we concluded that anyone who cycled 16,500 miles to China has got to be mad. However using a bicycle as your main method of transport surely displays a degree of sanity in an insane world where planes, trains and automobiles choke our planet with pollution and are contributing to the problems of climate change. Chris's article was intended for a book about long distance travel and reducing our dependence on flying. He certainly demonstrated the benefits of sustainable travel, but wouldn't argue that the bike could be a serious alternative to the plane.

I thought this was a well written and inspirational article, but probably not quite right for the book in question. Tony suggested submitting it to the 'slow travel' section of Resurgence magazine.We all agreed that he had made us think about our future travel options, and Annie said that she might consider a more fitness themed holiday next year such as walking or cycling. Rob suggested sending the article to a health and fitness/lifestyle publication for men.

The News:
Annie's delicious Victoria sponge took centre stage. She also submitted to a short story competition for children.
Tony had an article published in the British Journal of Wellbeing.
Clive has had an article printed in B: magazine and he has written another successful 'Mr Grumpy' column.
Both Rob and Tony gave very accomplished and enjoyable presentations about their work, at Bewdley library. Rob received 18 feedback cards from the audience saying that they would like to buy his book when it is published, and Tony sold 10 books, one to a little girl who took pity on him and helped him to spell her name: f,r,e,y,a.

I have just received my copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Although Strunk and White are Americans and have a few dodgy spellings, this is a fabulous book. I loved Dorothy Parker's (Esquire) comment: 'If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy.'
I was interested to see that White is the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

Next Meeting:
Monday, November 21 at Tony's house.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A Sprinkling of Gold Dust

Rather unusually I am reading and blogging this time. I had already interfered with Rob’s blogging algorithm by going out of turn and so I thought I would offer to blog as I am on half-term.

The news this week came thick and fast.
Clive: A magazine called Britain at War are interested in an article about a metal case made for Monty by Clive’s father during World War Two.
Chris: Has given another successful talk that was well attended.
Rob and Tony: Are preparing for their talks at Bewdley Library during half term.
Linda: Hold on everyone! This is big news! Linda has been accepted on to the Gold Dust mentoring programme. After attending the Arvon Course Linda was invited to submit her work for specialist mentoring and has been accepted. Linda has an Australian tutor and they keep in contact by skyping. Congratulations Linda, well done.

We also discussed my story that I wish to submit to a competition to write a children’s story. Everyone engaged well with my main character, Thomas. Linda did suggest a few more mannerisms to be included to give insight into his character, which I have done. Also the group were in agreement with the age range that I plan to submit the story for.

The other news of the night was that Chris failed to notice I had missed a vocative comma, leaving it to Rob and Tony to pick this up.

Clive was concerned that the ending of the story was too predictable. Often when I am reading with children at school it is easy to predict what will happen in the book so I am not sure if it is a problem that an adult can predict an ending. Tony thought that the ending did not have enough of a comeuppance whereas Rob thought that the pay back was good.

Eagle-Eyes Gillam noticed some typos: coupe instead of couple and conversions rather than conversations. I was also picked up a number of times for missing out the second set of speech marks.

Thank you all for your valuable contributions. The story is now ready and I will be posting it tomorrow.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

An Englishman in Berlin

Given that there were a couple of sparkly bits, The News On Tuesday was like the curate’s egg. Chris attracted sympathy for his Dorset venture where, of five events, two were well-attended and three were not, for which sole responsibility apparently rests with his sister-in-law (do not enquire). Perhaps people in that part of the world are insufficiently  proletarian in outlook to appreciate the finer points of cycling – I’ll bet they wouldn’t recognise a whippet if they saw one – though the prospect of meeting a man who cycled from the UK to Peking might have been expected to provoke at least the merely curious. Odd that Wessex, having produced one of England’s finest writers, failed so miserably to support a contemporary author.
Tony is undertaking a new course at Worcester University which will, amongst other things, require him to produce a pair of two and a half thousand-word pieces before the end of the year, but he was cheered by the sale of some of his books on a market stall (not his, someone else’s – the stall, not the books) and, with Rob, looks forward to the Bewdley Authors’ Reading Week for which Rob provided some leaflets. Tony reads on Wednesday 26th at one o’clock and Rob on Friday 28th at two thirty. I reported a tie: one rejection and one acceptance (unpaid) in Mensa magazine’s December edition (and Rob liked my new website). Annie failed to report anything, having at the time a mouthful of Mrs E’s finest home-made ginger biscuits and being too polite to attempt to speak.
The highlight was Rob’s success in the 31st Winchester Writers’ Conference competition into which he had entered a synopsis and the first three pages of his novel ‘The Sting Inside’, of which we later heard an extract. Rob received a Certificate of Commendation which he intends to frame and to which he will give deserved prominence.
Once the decks had been cleared of news, Rob read an extract from a discovered manuscript for a memoir called 'My Cabaret Years' (sub-titled ‘In Isherwood’s Footsteps’), written by one of the characters from his work in progress, ‘The Sting Inside’. The memoir found unanimous favour, attracting such epithets as ‘engaging’, ‘convincing’, ‘crisp’, ‘well-researched’ and ‘authentic’. It is written in the first person by Cameron Mortimer, a gay Englishman visiting Berlin in 1932 and looked after by his Jewish friend Leo. Apart from those too young to know, of whom Tony claimed to be one[1], it was felt that the era and the place were extremely well-drawn, realistic and authentic, but anyway, Tony trusts Rob’s research. Chris enjoyed the contrast between the superficial gaiety and innocence on the one hand and the underlying menace on the other, while Annie was entertained by the homosexual passage towards the end. The writing was of a consistently high quality, and although I disagreed with Rob’s choice of word in a couple of places this was balanced by my admiration for some well-chosen verbs. This served to illustrate one of the benefits of first-person fiction: the author takes the credit for the good bits and blames his character for the rest. Towards the end, Rob moved into the present tense, creating tension and a sense of immediacy, pointing up the climax when Cameron becomes instantaneously infatuated with a young, blond, blue-eyed Nazi. The physical description of Cameron’s burgeoning lust was felt to be surprisingly authentic, by those in a position to judge.  We look forward very much to reading more of ‘The Sting Inside’; in the meantime, Chris wondered whether we might have sight of a synopsis.
We were able, sadly only momentarily, to relish the prospect of a debate on whether the ‘s’ of the verb ‘focus’ should be doubled when forming the past participle. To everyone’s regret, Tony averred that as he frequently found reason to use the word, he’d taken the trouble to ascertain that both forms are correct. We took out our disappointment on Rob who claimed to have forgotten the algorithm again; the rumour that he’s lost the original and can’t now remember how he did it is gaining ground. We meet next to critique work by Annie at Chris and Linda’s on October 18th.

[1]. Rob alluded in the memoir to “a Sally Bowles character”: a reference lost on the ‘youth’ party who claimed never to have heard of her. She was, of course, the character upon whom Lisa Minelli’s role in the film ‘Cabaret’ was based. Now there’s a thing . . . Rob’s piece could easily have been entitled ‘An Englishman in Berlin’, as in ‘An American in Paris’, which was a 1952 film starring Gene Kelly and directed by . . . Vincente Minelli – Lisa’s dad!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A 21st century equivalent to Somerset Maugham

We gathered at Rob’s for new member Clive's debut reading - a short story called Old Friends. Both Linda and I were initially put off by the golf club lounge setting of the opening scene but still the story managed to engage and everybody admired Clive’s acute ear for dialogue, much of which sounded completely natural, as if it were real conversation overheard. Annie was very taken with the character of the annoying waiter, commenting he was ‘annoying in a really good way '. She wanted the waiter to go away so she could continue eavesdropping on the other characters’ conversation - proof of the compelling nature of Clive’s storytelling. But it was Rob who really hit the nail on the head when he observed how Old Friends - a rather old-fashioned, highly moralistic tale in which the good are rewarded and the reprehensible get their comeuppance - could have come straight from the pen of Somerset Maugham.

Now I didn't let on about this at the meeting but Somerset Maugham and I have something in common. Last year I wrote an article for the British Journal of Wellbeing called Time to write the next book. I don't mean to cause a distraction here so I'll put a link to the article at the end of this blog entry and you can click on it and read it at your leisure. The point is, Clive is anxious to break out of his rather old-fashioned style but, as there are probably few people writing in the tradition of Somerset Maugham these days, why shouldn't Clive be the one who picks up that particular baton?

There is an apocryphal story that Thomas Hardy (one of the greatest of English novelists and also one of England’s finest poets) wanted nothing more than to be remembered as an outstanding dramatist like his friend JM Barrie (one of Scotland's most successful novelists and playwrights in his time) who in turn berated himself for not being able to write poetry like Hardy. The moral of this story is that, if you’re brilliant enough to create a Far from the Madding Crowd or a Peter Pan, you should be pleased with your achievements. And if my Severn Valley Author friends insist on my being Wyre Forest’s answer to Garrison Keillor then I think Clive might settle for being the 21st century’s Somerset Maugham.

Click here to read Time to write the next book by Tony Gillam as published in the British Journal of Wellbeing, August 2010 – Vol 1 No 5.

Monday, 19 September 2011

'The Idea of Marmalade' by Anthony Gillam and The Pow-Wow Litfest

On Wednesday 7 September it was Tony's turn to play host. The biscuits were of the usual excellent quality.

Clive, SVA's latest recruit, announced that he has landed a column in the Worcester News on an initial 5-month trial. The title? 'Old Grumpy'. We congratulated him. A column in a local paper! Sadly, however, he won't be paid for it. Once a month he must find something to complain about and write about it. 'Not difficult,' he said. 'I do a lot of cycling and the resentment just builds up.'
'Doesn't it just,' I replied.

Rob and Tony will be talking about their writing at Bewdley Library during the festival fringe - Tony on Wednesday 26 October and Rob on Thursday 27. Naturally they expect the audience to be packed with literary agents and publishers. Linda and I will try to squeeze in if there is any room left.

Tony (right) and Rob at The Author's Fayre

Having resubmitted his proposal of a book about the role of creativity in mental health to a publisher (after they lost the original), Tony told us that the idea, aimed at mental-health nurses and professionals, has had a mixed reception and it remains in limbo. Better news from Rob: after writing to the New Statesman every anniversary of 9/11 criticising their reporting of those terrible events, his letter is finally to be published on the tenth anniversary. If you don't at first succeed...

At length we got down to business. Tony read out his latest short story, entitled The Idea of Marmalade, about a week in the life of an unemployed graduate. Tony makes a habit of focusing on random, every-day trivia in his sort stories, giving each event significance. The story begins with the graduate's inability to like the taste of marmalade - although she likes the idea of it. Tony went on to describe her novelty socks, each pair a different colour that was supposed to represent the wearer's mood. Annie strongly objected to the matching of the colours to the mood. 'How can "orange" be "tired"?' she objected. The story takes the reader through each day of the week, each with a different pair of novelty socks. The events were well described with Tony's usual expert command of grammar, dialogue and punctuation, but we noted his tendency to repeat the same word a little too often in the same paragraph. The story ends with a dream, in which the graduate relives the experiences of the week, but in the surreal, chaotic way characteristic of dreams.

On Saturday 17 September we drove up to Moseley to attend the 2011 Pow-Wow LitFest. The event was held under canvas behind the Prince of Wales pub on the Alcester Road.  We arrived a little late because of the volume of traffic on its way into Birmingham, so we missed about 20 minutes of the first event, the interview with Catheryn Kilgarriff from Marion Boyars Publishers. She spoke mainly about the working relationship between author and publisher, and the need for the writer to create a profile or a brand. Self-promotion is about building relationships by visiting literary festivals, and using a website or a blog to create a persona. Her description of the submission she received from Hong Ying as 'commercial dynamite' prompted a member of the audience to ask what constituted 'commercial dynamite'. The reply was that it was historically correct, the right length, cogent and had a love interest.

The second event was an interview with three budding novelists based in Birmingham: Anna Lawrence Pietroni, Charlie Hill and Andrew Killeen, the organiser of the event. All were disarmingly modest, self-deprecating even, and spoke eloquently and with humour about the business of writing books. Although it became clear that each author had a very different method of writing, they were all passionate about it, using every spare minute possible to work at their craft. I was struck how often all of them expressed my own feelings about writing - that it is a craft and, like all crafts, you get better with practice. If you can't imagine not writing, keep writing! Practice until you are good! Anna's confession that it had taken her 5 years to write her debut novel, Ruby's Spoon, made me feel better about the time it is taking me to write Karl Marx and Careful Driving (5 years and counting) - 'Books aren't written; they are rewritten,' she said. Nothing is wasted in the creative process. Charlie stated that he wrote because 'he was rubbish at everything else' and didn't want to do 'a proper job'. His statement that ideas gestate even when you aren't at the computer struck a chord - some of my best ideas have come to me while out running in the Wyre Forest and listening to Bach on the I-pod. Andy stated that being rejected by publishers or agents doesn't make you a failure; it makes you a writer. Being talented is never enough, but neither is hard work. You need to work hard and have a core of talent upon which to draw. My conclusion was that above all you need to be passionate about writing.

Sarah Ballard, a literary agent working for United Agents had the slot at 3.30pm. United Agents were formed 3.5 years ago by agents formerly working for the Peters, Fraser & Dunlop agency. She spoke about the role of an agent. At United Agents each agent works with their own list of clients, reading their work, working with them to improve it, maintaining contacts within the publishing industry, overseeing the publishing contracts, getting blurb and jacket right, checking stock levels and publicity - all the stuff that most authors neither want to do nor have time to do. She stated that her favourite part was the reading and editing of submissions. What makes her take a book on is the language. There comes a point, usually 30 or 40 pages in, when she decides that she has no reason to turn down the manuscript. Such manuscripts are so good that she feels the need to read extracts out loud to her husband. She summarised her most frequent reasons to refuse a manuscript as basic mistakes in spelling and grammar; self-consciousness, the feeling that the writing isn't confident and lacks smoothness, and that the writer hasn't yet found his or her own voice. If she is unable to decide how a book should be published, which publisher would want to take it on and what the jacket would look like, she will reject the manuscript.  Her advice was to become a member of a writing group to iron out grammatical mistakes; to keep writing but to be critical about one's work; and to be sure that you actually want an agent and you want to get your work published. She was gloomy about the prospects for new writers - apparently it has never been harder as publishers want to publish fewer and bigger books. Non fiction is particularly difficult to sell to publishers now - they are interested only in important, urgent books written by people with excellent credentials. Hmm.... does Karl Marx and Careful Driving fit into any of these categories? When a literary agent accepted 'Why Don't You Fly?' I was convinced that my writing career had been launched, but he submitted the manuscript to 13 publishers without success before giving up.
 Sarah claimed that it was perfectly acceptable these days to send work to 5 or 6 agents at once, but it was advisable to admit to having done so in the covering letters and to promise to let agents know of any positive responses from others. An agent has to share the author's vision and be prepared to fight for it; sometimes the agent - author relationship doesn't work. Sarah advised us to use agents who are members of the Agent's Association because it guarantees certain minimal standards of behaviour.

There followed a debate about the future of publishing between four representatives of three publishers: Luke Brown (Tindal St Press), Dan Holloway (8 Cuts Gallery Press) and Sarah Taylor and Jeremy Thompson (both representing Matador Books). Tindal St Press are a small publisher of literary fiction with authors based all over the country. They have only four employees and pick up writers often without agents.8 Cuts Gallery Press is a publisher of the unorthodox and the unfashionable, with the emphasis of working with the author at live events; and like Pen Press, Matador offers authors a way into mainstream publishing by producing their books - presumably at a price. I was impressed by the amount of support Matador appear to offer their authors in marketing and selling the books. Perhaps the lines between self-publishing and mainstream publishing are blurring. The general consensus was that big publishers are taking on fewer books, the emphasis being on less books and larger quantities, leaving more room in the market for niche publishers. Editors are more conservative about what manuscripts they are prepared to take on. The landscape of the High Street is changing: Borders and Books Etc have gone, and Waterstones are struggling. Few writers are able to make a living from their craft, and we have to write because we want to write. We live in uncertain times, with e-books coming onto the market and nobody sure what effect they will have on printed books.

This was in effect the end of our evening at the Lit Fest. We went out for a pub meal, and by the time we came back, all the seats were taken and we were unable to hear anything from our position next to the bar at the back. The afternoon had been enjoyable and very informative, and I'm looking forward to attending the 2012 Pow-Wow Litfest.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Now we are six

We met at Chris and Linda's but sadly Rob was unable to join us. His wife had told him that he would be visiting his mother. Is organisation a woman thing?

We did however have some visitors/interlopers/ them what you will. We were please to meet Clive Eardley from Worcester who is interested in possibly joing the group or setting up one of his own. Linda also introduced us to her friend Tracy that she met on a recent Arvon course. Tracy is interested in joining a writing group and wished to attend our group to see what it was like. Chris and Linda extended a warm welcome with banana bread.

We read a chapter called 'Tears of Remorse' from Linda's novel. We had looked at the same piece before but on the advice of the course tutor at Arvon Linda is changing the piece so it is in the first person. The change was a resounding success; Chris felt the writing was more natural and Linda's voice came through more easily. I felt the writing flowed without the name Lily appearing like a clever at regular intervals. Tony disagreed as he felt the change to the first person made it sound self-pitying. Tony 'the hyphen' Gillam also noticed the omission in tightly-wound.

Tracy found the piece engaging and loved the phrase, 'Her ruffled petticoat and skirt were hoisted around her waist displaying her meaty thighs and tomorrow's washing.' Clive described the chapter as funny, moving, intriguing and authentic.

Lots of us moaned about green plums and how they sounded rather sour until Linda told us that she was referring to greengages.

Our thanks to Clive and Tracy for attending and joining in with the spirit of the Severn Valley Authors. Can anyone remind me why I have jotted down the phrase 'hermaphrodite screenplay'? in my notes.

Looking forward to Rob's return, hopefully his wife will remind him of the next meeting date!

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Eagle, the truck driver and Plato*

In the ‘About’ wording on the right of your screen, we say that the members of Severn Valley Authors share a commitment to being published. So we always greet the news that one of us has had a success with huge enthusiasm. Aquila the magazine of ‘fun, challenge and inspiration’ for youngster of 8-13 is publishing Tony Gillam’s short story Times Wing’d Chariot in its summer double issue. Well done, Tony. (And he’s paid for it too!) 

We settled down to the main event of the meeting which was to workshop a rewrite of an extract from Chris’s meisterwerk. Chris Smith is not your usual truck driver. In Karl Marx and Careful Driving, the book he is writing (the act itself makes him unusual), Chris describes one of the great migrations of the truck-driving fraternity and weaves into his story the history of world politics and philosophy. It’s an odyssey of the body and the mind. His plan is to write this in such a way that your every-day, currant-bun reading truck driver can make sense of it. This looks like a crack-pot scheme and originally I doubted Chris’s sanity for trying but, if the extract he read at our meeting is anything to go by, he’s going to pull it off.

The thoughts of Plato, who was absent in the original extract (a shameful omission, I think you’ll agree), have now been added to those of the other philosophers and political thinkers in Chris’s repertoire. He has seamlessly woven this content into his expert travel writing that describes the night drive from Kidderminster to Dover which is the first stage of Chris’s bodily odyssey. He does it in such a way (now that the extracts from heavy tomes are confined to the footnotes) that even I find it accessible and riveting. We all agreed that this is a winner.

*Aquila is Latin for eagle – but you knew that.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Accomplished Writing

Our meeting was diverted to Rob's house this week because Tony had some limp excuse about flies in his chimney. I think he was afraid that we might ask to meet the elusive Mrs Gillam who he claims is kept in the attic. Do you know, I'm sure I've heard the rattle of chains during our meetings there. He says that the flies come from a decaying squirrel that is stuck behind the gas fire. What I want to know, Tony, is where is your wife? At least he had the decency to bring the chocolate biscuits.

Any business: We have to congratulate Rob on his budding modelling career - he is the new face of HPB and we have decided not to renew our membership of NAWG. Sorry, NAWG, you were great but at the same price as a Chinese take-away, we have decided to opt for the latter. Annie has entered her excellent story The Ninth Step for the Bridport prize and Tony has also entered with his engaging story Paper Thin. Good luck to you both.

Rob takes us to Spring 1932 in Berlin. We all agreed that this was a seriously accomplished piece of writing. The characters were compelling, the dialogue excellent and Rob had done a really good job with the research into Berlin during the 30's, including all the authentic place names. He wrote about homosexuality in a very convincing way and with some great 'dark' humour. We all loved the image of 'two stately homos of England flouncing ahead of me in their open-toed sandals (Chris hid his feet under the table at this point) and Besides my valise, which was large enough for me to have smuggled in a boy for my gratification. I am looking forward to reading the finished book. I think this could be a winner, Rob.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Golden Arches and Dancing Plants

On Tuesday 14 June we gathered at Rob's to discuss Annie's submission, entitled Yellow Peril and the Green-Eyed Monster.
News: Tony has entered the Guardian Weekend short story competition, the theme of entries being 'journeys'. After changing most of the narrative from first to second person, Annie is entering her short story The Ninth Step for the Bridport Prize. Rob has submitted entries to the Guardian Weekend, the Bridport and the Bristol competitions. I wonder how he finds the time. Linda spoke glowingly about her week spent on a residential Arvon writing course. She received great tuition from a couple of brilliant authors who were both very positive about her writing - as are we at the SVA, but Linda suffers from an entirely unjustifiable lack of self-confidence. After returning from deepest Shropshire she has changed direction and decided to rewrite her novel A Head Full of Budgerigars in the first person.
On my first reading of Annie's short story, I found myself wondering just what the point was of writing a detailed description of a three-year-old girl's fascination with the act of a man (her father) urinating. But then what is the point of writing anything? Perhaps Tolstoy has put his finger on it in What is Art?:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having invoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art. Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others the feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
Annie has done exactly that by reproducing the experience of a three-year-old child, skilfully reproducing all the toddler's curiosity, fascination and bewilderment by deploying the art of what Rob calls "showing, not telling":
'The slapping of liquid on leaves stops me (she writes). His back is to me but something is happening; I can tell. I put down my trowel down and stand up wiping my hands down maroon corduroy dungarees. As I come alongside I see a golden arch making the plants dance. Yellow droplets gather on the long grasses and then slide to the ground.'
On second and third readings, as is often the case, I found the story growing on me. It is a well-written, acutely-observed and charming piece about an unusual subject, described with humour and a child's attention to detail. We had the predictable argument after the reading about whether or not a child's experience can be expressed in such adult language. I felt that it could, and indeed would have to be, for a child of that age is clearly incapable of writing or expressing itself in a way that would make entertaining or even comprehensible reading. The recreation of any childhood experience has to be accomplished by the adult writing about events seen from his or her former self's point of view.
Linda described it as a very poetic description of someone having a wee but wondered why there was no reference to smell. Both Tony and Rob felt that the item was a little too brief for the short story genre and Rob wondered if it might be extended to include the mother's addressing her daughter's distress at her inability to 'wee standing up' like her father by listing female compensations. And we established that there is a hyphen in wee-wee.

Monday, 13 June 2011

In which Tony gets a 'Reality Check' and Rob dangles his participle

We met in the upstairs sitting room at Chris and Linda's and were served very fine banana bread.

Tony read a story that he had written some years ago called 'Reality Check'. The story was about an aspiring musician; whose work is only discovered, when after bitter disappointment, he leaves it out to be collected by the bin men. Rob enjoyed the 'Tony-Gillam-Garrison-Keillor' feel of the piece. He also felt that he was in safe hands as Tony's technical knowledge of speakers/guitars/cables etc. was clearly shown. Well-written with good subject matter, super command of dialogue was Chris's appraisal. Linda thought that the story was very neat and fitted together well.

There was much discussion about the ethics of one of Tony's characters who had had several beers at lunchtime and had then collected his kids from school. Some of us weren't happy with this state of affairs.

It was then that Rob informed us that he had spotted a dangling participle... We were horrified but luckily Rob was on hand with a sheet of information about this dangerous occurence

Well done Tony a carefully constructed piece with a lovely sense of completion.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Slaughtered Lamb

Who remembers 'An American Werewolf in London'?
The book I’m reading at the moment is The English German Girl by Jake Wallis Simons. It’s an interesting story and Simons makes it rattle along while employing some interesting point-of-view trickery to give it a literary quality. But, occasionally, I find my reading pace checked when I come across something which, I believe, should have been smoothed out by a diligent editor.
There are times I read a piece of writing that is so simpatico, my internal editor switches off and a preternatural connection transmits the meaning from the writer’s pen straight into my brain.  Our member Linda produced prose of this order in the latest extract from her novel-in-progress, A Head Full of Budgerigars.  This was from a chapter headed Magnetic Socks in which Linda’s protagonist Lily spends a day in her Shrubshire home but contrasts the current idyll with a remembered life on a French farm where:
Trevor dragged the frightened lamb on its back across the unkempt farmyard in Sainte Béatrice, to a piece of rough ground in front of the kitchen window. … He slit the lambs throat and the blood dripped into the bucket below. Lily had expected it to gush out in a hideous torrent. He cut open the stomach and removed the liver with a knife that flashed in the sunlight. The liver flopped into a chipped enamel bowl. ‘Do you want to fry this up? It’s beautiful when it’s fresh, not like that crap in the supermarket.’  … She [Lily] grimaced, ‘I’d rather not.’

The humour in the pay-off line is typical of Linda’s novel which is also characterized by a wistful, elegiac tone for the pieces about the English countryside. We all hope that when Lily finishes the book she can find an agent or publisher who loves it as much as we do.

In other news, we discussed the current round of competitions and it looks as if at least three of us will attempt to have a story in the Summer Guardian Weekend Short Story special. We also floated the idea that if we can’t afford to go to writing retreats organized by other people why can’t we do-it-ourselves? Five Go (Writing) Mad in Dorset beckons.  

Monday, 9 May 2011

Our last meeting was at Rob's house where we listened to Chris read an extract from Karl Marx and Careful Driving. It was generally felt by the group that Chris had got it just right this time, ie more about the journey and less philosophy. Marx (as the title implies) is central to the theme of the book and Plato is becoming equally significant, so Chris didn't quite agree.

I felt that this was an exciting extract from the book - real swashbuckling, romantic stuff. The loneliness and isolation of the long distance truck driver really came through. Tony appreciated the 'dark' humour and Annie enjoyed getting a bit closer to life on the road. Rob was a little disconcerted about Chris's thoughts on speeding: 'The Inquisition is wielding radar guns on the Minsk bypass'. Hopefully this contentious subject will attract interest and discussion and we will soon be listening to Chris being interviewed on Radio 4, while we eat our cornflakes. Doesn't he bare a striking resemblance to Errol Flynn?

Apologies to Annie for missing my turn to blog on her latest short story Aspirations and Ambitions. We all agreed that this was a well constructed story with an excellent twist and the requisite happy ending. This is the sort of story that women's magazines love and hopefully she should do very well with it. Several of us felt that the title should be changed. I suggested Keeping up with Monica.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Fine upstanding writers

It had been a while since we'd met at Chris and Linda’s and the mood was light-hearted. Thanks to Linda's hospitality and baking skills I enjoyed my second accidental cake of the day. Annie and I shared a pew while Rob -- suffering with a back problem -- was obliged to spend the meeting either towering over us like an intimidating lecturer who had lost his lectern or else kneeling beside this. Poor Rob. But the supplicant was rewarded for his humble genuflection with lots of thoughtful and constructive feedback on his submission to this week’s meeting -- an opening chapter for a ghost-written memoir. This is a fascinating project and generated much discussion about the particular challenges of writing memoir and the extent to which a ghost-writer must remain faithful to the recollections of the ‘ghost-writee’. All memory is imperfect. How much poetic licence can the writer of memoir-at-one-remove be allowed?

Meanwhile, Chris has been busy touring his ' one-man show ' based on his book Why don't you fly? With the logistical backup of Linda, Chris is as busy doing talks these days as he is writing. He played us a recording of a recent interview on BBC Radio Shropshire. Notwithstanding the chummy facetiousness of the radio presenter, BBC local radio remains one of the few forums for emerging writers to publicise their work. The BBC is a public service and, like all public services these days, is facing cutbacks. BBC local radio is a precious platform for writers just as BBC Radio 4 is one of very few outlets for short literary fiction for UK-based writers. Let us hope, as the BBC's output is scrutinised, opportunities for new writing are developed rather than cut back. Perhaps we should follow Rob's example and ask for as much on bended knee.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Certainly Not a Soft Head

The Severn Valley Authors met to review the third and final part of Tony's long short story - 'The Softeness of Heads'. Everyone agreed that it was a strong piece that would also happily stand alone without the first two parts. Rob was thrilled by the indifference shown by Tony's protagonist when it came to remembering the name of a cousin. So much so that Rob was inspired to muse on this point on his own website! There was much discussion about the use of a very large jump in the narrative. Linda and myself thought it too big a jump but Rob on the other hand did not mind. Many other facets of the writing did not divide opinion. For instance we all loved the reference to bald rather than bold knights. The story had a period feel, which Tony drip-feeds in, creating a 'roomy' read. We also agreed that this was a multi-layered story that each reader had interpreted in very different way. But we also agreed that it was about being different. It was insightful and depicted childhood well. This story was strongly autobiographical. Tony revealed that some of the events that we questioned the likelihood of, had actually happened. So he did fall down the coal hole! This story was skilfully created with Tony taking us inside the head of a child very convincingly. It reminded me of many situations from childhood and feelings of being out of step. Does anybody ever truly feel in step though? Rob was bold (or bald) enough to suggest a tiny modification to the ending where the protagonist had learnt from his experiences and had toughened up. As change should be at the heart of any short story this did sound like a good suggestion but the decision lies entirely with Tony. A gentle but captivating read!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Flying gerunds

A captive gerund - Gerald Scarfe
We welcomed a potential new member, Holly, who came to view us to see whether being part of our group would help her with the fantasy trilogy she is working on.

It has been part of the SVA ethos from its beginning to take the workshopping element of our meetings seriously and it may seem a bit scarey for somebody new to watch as we analyse our compatriot’s writing. I think we are good at emphasising the good parts and describing our suggestions for improvements as techniques of writing rather than finding fault in the writer.

Linda read an extract from her novel about the peregrinations of Lily – this chapter being titled Homeward Bound. There was much for us to admire in the way Linda evokes mood with her smooth-as-Guinness prose. She imparts a poetic rhythm with repetition, adverbs and adjectives shaping and counting the beats and this gives her work a lyrical, almost Celtic personality. It may sound as if this means the work is ‘away with the fairies’ but nothing could be further from the ‘life as Lily lived it’ story that Linda is unfolding.

In the discussions that followed, we examined the practicalities of obtaining permission to quote lyrics – in this case from the eponymous Simon and Garfunkel song  – and the use of apostrophes indicating possession when the ‘thing’ possessed is a gerund. Eg: the boys’ misbehaving was driving her wild. We failed to resolve this and decided in favour of changing the sentence to eliminate the dilemma.

So, Lily is now homeward bound to Shrubshire (or wherever) and at the end of the meeting the SVA members returned to their homes to dream of possessed gerunds trussed into strait jackets and flying away on the wings of giant apostrophes.

Thanks for the Petticoat Tails, Tony.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

One-sentence paragraphs, metacognition ... and the quietest places under the sun

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

(From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

Thus Dickens begins Tale of Two Cities with one of the most famous one-sentence paragraphs in literature. If Dickens could use one-sentence paragraphs why shouldn't less celebrated authors? Yet I'm surely not alone in having been told in school that a paragraph must have more than one sentence. A quick internet search provides supporters and detractors for the practice in equal numbers. The consensus seems to be that one-sentence paragraphs are not strictly forbidden these days - and can indeed have great impact (hence their widespread use in print journalism) - but that they should be used sparingly. With this in mind, and bowing to Dickens’ genius, I'm prepared to forgive Chris’s one-sentence paragraph habit which became a talking-point at this week's meeting of the Severn Valley Authors.

We were discussing an extract from Chris’s work in progress: Karl Marx and Careful Driving. With flashes of brilliantly fine writing, Chris’s project is becoming ever more complex and multi-layered. Chris acknowledged that it is highly experimental but I'm not sure what he made of my suggestion that, at times, it is now closer to an epic prose poem than a narrative.

Rob noted Chris's tendency to sometimes “go off on one”, by which he meant those times where Chris quotes philosophy without linking it to his highly original truck-driving theme. The great difficulty is getting the balance right and the group agreed that it sometimes reads too much like a textbook. Annie wanted “nuggets of Marxism and chunks of real life” rather than the other way round and Chris defended himself by pointing out that the lengthy Marx quotes have only been ‘dropped’ into the text provisionally and will be edited and paraphrased in time.

Annie dazzled us with her introduction of the concept of ‘metacognition’ with reference to the following (two-sentence) paragraph of Chris’s:

Individual fulfilment is achieved by closing the gap that exists between our unique personal essence - the perfect imaginary world that figures only in our dreams - and our existence (the world transmitted by our senses). The gap between essence and existence, theory and practice, the World of Ideas and the World of the Senses, had narrowed.

Annie had always thought this thought, apparently, but hadn’t known she had thought it until now – metacognition, indeed!

After the above, one-sentence paragraph the only question that remains is: Do decades have capitals? That is to say, should it be “the eighties and the nineties” or the “Eighties and the Nineties”? Perhaps Linda will discover the answer to this and other questions when she attends the Arvon Foundation course at Clunton in June.

“Where’s Clunton?” asked Rob.

I don't want to give away the exact location for obvious reasons for, being an inveterate 'Shropshire Lad' of course I know that, in the words of A E Houseman:

Clunton and Clunbury,

Clungunford and Clun,

Are the quietest places

Under the sun.

(from Clunton and Clunbury by A E Housman)

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Sting Inside

I have been sitting here in front of my computer screen for some time struggling to find the right words for this blog. I wonder if I will ever finish my book - if I will ever find the right words - if I will ever add to my own blog, last written in September 2010. I have been attacked by self-doubt, but then I am kicked in the behind when I think of all my fellow writers at SVA. They soldier on, continuing to search for the right words in the face of the minutest odds that their hard work will be recognised. Tony and Annie manage to produce fabulous work in what little spare time they have. Working full-time, making time for family and relationships and finding time to write is a skilfull juggling act.

Chris gets up at 4 a.m. every morning so that he can get a couple of hours of writing in before cycling off to work. He allows himself a lie-in on those days when he doesn't have to work: he gets up at 5 a.m. instead.

Rob also juggles several jobs and commitments beyond writing, but never ceases to come up with the goods. We all know - it isn't easy.

After the dramatic first chapter of The Sting Inside, Rob sets the scene for his characters and their new life in America. He beautifully crafts a sense of authenticity with references to screen doors that slammed shut if you didn't wedge yourself in them and yellow school buses with folding doors that shushed open and the flag that swings out to stop the traffic. He also hints at the difficulties the family face in a new land: Ben starting a new school and the importance of having friends, and Rachel facing long days in an empty house. Annie and I immediately felt sympathy for Rachel and felt that her story should be developed but Rob showed that she was no pushover when it came to standing up for her son and her firmness with the school. I wasn't going to have them mess it up, she says to Jon. Jon comes across as a loving family man and there are nice little touches like Jon embarrassing his son by singing and clicking his fingers 'old-fogey' style, but we do get a sense of his smugness; that this life in America is about his career and the riches success can bring.

Underpinning this depiction of family life, guilt, in the guise of a malignant worm burrowing inside Jon, adds a sinister backdrop. On this occasion 'guilt' speaks, in fact it tells the story. Annie felt that the worm needs to have a persona, indeed a more malevolent one. I liked her question, Is it an English or an American worm? I also have to agree with her point that it seems hard to believe that anyone could forget that their story is going in to print that day.

Tony enjoyed the sinsiter undertones that the worm gave to the story of the (hitherto) good life in America and felt that the epigram by Primo Levi was helpful.

Phrases praised by all of us were: her cereal-commercial brightness and Ben's gangling limbs galumphing about.

We already have strong hints of the conflict to come: the musical Cabaret with its Nazi/Jewish theme, the gay lovers and of course the aftermath of 9/11 and survivor guilt. We all look forward to reading more and to discovering exactly why, as Rob says, Every good thing has a sting inside.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Longest Journey Begins with the First Step

As local authors sharing the same publisher, Rob and I used to meet in Piccolo's coffee bar to discuss our latest writing projects. The idea to start a writing group was Rob's. When pondering a suitable title we decided upon 'authors' rather than 'writers' as we wanted members of our group either to have written, or be in the process of writing, a book. We wanted them to be serious. In short, like us.

So we were delighted when Annie announced a couple of weeks ago that the novel-writing course she has been attending in Evesham had inspired her to get cracking on Chapter One of her first novel (title as yet unknown).

This is a momentous occasion for any author. I am firmly of the opinion that writing those first few vital sentences is the hardest and most daunting part of a task that will demand a great deal of commitment for a period that may last for years.

On Tuesday January 11 2011 at Tony's house in Kidderminster, Annie read out the first draft of Chapter One. Set in the inter-war period, the story begins with Isabel's arrival on an island in the Hebrides to begin a new life as a teacher.
Weakened by seasickness following the a stormy ferry crossing from the mainland, she is met by the curmudgeonly and ungracious Francis Murdoch and taken by horse and cart to a church to witness the funeral of a two-week-old child.

The fog, the looming cliffs, the waves, the ungracious Murdoch, the grieving congregation and the tiny coffin conspire to evoke a sombre atmosphere, but the chapter ends with a lift in the mood. The sympathy and friendship offered to Isabel after the funeral by the dead child's mother is as if the fog has lifted to reveal blue sky and sunshine.

We congratulated Annie on her ability to create an atmosphere and describe scenes. Rob, who has 'been there before' and is also embarking upon a new novel, suggested that the action might begin at the funeral. Isabel's sea voyage, arrival on the island and journey to the church could be revealed by a series of flashbacks.

This idea met with general approval. We debated the pros and cons of using Scottish dialect in direct speech and whether or not the island should be fictitious - or even if it should be Scottish at all. Tony pointed out that a fictitious island that wasn't necessarily Scottish would save a lot of research into culture and history and keep Annie out of the minefield of reproducing dialect that would sound genuine to a Scottish reader.

Annie - who, like the main protagonist, is a teacher - stated that she wasn't yet sure where her story would take her. Nevertheless she appeared already to have plenty of ideas about a plot. I have found from personal experience that a story can generate a momentum of its own. One new idea often inspires several others, taking the narrative in all kinds of unexpected directions. We advised her to just get the ideas on down on paper and revisit them later. Rob added that imagining the characters as film actors is a good way of ensuring consistency of description.

I left the meeting wondering where our various ongoing projects will have taken us this time next year.