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.