Saturday, June 29, 2013

Z is for Zee... no, zed.... no, zee....

I was wandering around the supermarket this morning. I have a lot to think about at the moment, so I was seeking out distractions rather than panicking at the length of my to-do list. The mid-morning shop tends to be when parents do their 'baby-friendly' shopping - that easy-going half an hour before the harried, aggressive workers arrive with their sharp elbows, vicious baskets and competitive sandwich shopping; and totally different from the after-school rush when the aisles are awash with loud and hungry school children.

Anyway, I digress (which was probably what prompted me to shop in the first place). Two grandparents passed me as we walked by the mushrooms. They were pushing their grandson in one of those child-friendly half-car shopping trolleys. He was sweetly precocious with a long blonde fringe (bangs) and plump little legs sticking out of his short trousers (pants). He wasn't very interested in driving the half-car/half-shopping trolley: most children make 'vroom vroom' noises and spin the steering wheel this way or that, but this little boy was reciting the alphabet in a very loud sing-song voice. By the time we reached the cheese counter, he had arrived at 'z'... 'Zee', he sang loudly, and the grandparents applauded and turned to me and said, he's only two. They were very proud - in fact, it would be fair to say that they were beaming with pride, and their grandson was beaming with the applause that passing shoppers gave him.

But, to be honest, that 'zee' is a bit of a problem for me. I'm an English woman writing in America and I've needed to adapt to American-English, which sounds and looks subtly different from the English-English I learnt at school.

Firstly, I have had to vigo(u)rously remove the 'u' from many of my favo(u)rite words which gives my writing a totally different flavo(u)r and colo(u)r.

Secondly, I have had to watch, a helpless bystander, as the 'e's have pushed their way in front of 'r's every time the mood becomes somber, or if a character demonstrates moral fiber. There is little I can do in the face of the US spellchecker: I was tempted to introduce a massacre into my writing - just so that the 'r' could stay where it should be for once - but you can't just plonk a massacre into your book because you have a quibble with American spelling.

Thirdly, I have needed to scrap the 'ly'. I like 'ly's at the end of my words, they sound nice. It's been hard to abandon my 'firstly's, 'secondly's, 'thirdly's and so forth. That I overuse them is a consequence of my obsessive-compulsive nature, but I also like my writing to sound good when I read it aloud and, let's face it, 'first' is a syllable shorter which can make all the difference to the rhythm of a sentence.

Fourth(ly), the grammar is different enough to trip me up when I make my proof-reading route (to rhyme with 'about') across the page. For example, I use the '-' all the time - my characters interrupt their own thoughts and the '-' has always been a great way of showing the random divergences which are possible within a sentence. Here in the States, the hyphen defaults to a dash and the American word-processing packages affix it to the previous word. The spacing might not seem all that important, until you realize that American writers who want to use a hyphen have to insert double dashes -- and it was at that point that I realized how many hyphens I had thoughtlessly inserted into my book's pages, each one of which now needs manually amending before the book can go out to an American publisher.

However, balanced against all of these challenges is my absolute joy at reclaiming the 'z'. My name is Zoe, so I have always had a personal fondness for the letter and it is, if you will forgive my criticism, grossly underutilized within English English. Geometrically, it's the best of all possible letters. My grandmother had an outside lavatory when I was growing up. It was a tiny room with a red painted floor, an enormous lavatory, and a clumsy wooden door. The beams of that door were nailed into a 'z' shape. When I was learning to read, I would sit on that toilet for ages, kicking my legs and staring at that decontextualized letter 'z'. I don't think that I ever noticed it was nailed up backwards, but I always felt it had a special affinity with me.

By the time I reached the check-out, the little boy had loudly sing-songed through the alphabet about seventeen times. The grandparents were still beaming, but they looked a little tired around their eyes. Z is a good place to end - it's the conclusion of the alphabet, it's the last one in this series of blogs. But it's also a new beginning. For the little boy, it was his opportunity to clap his hands and start again from the beginning (and how those grandparents beamed with exhausted pride). For Cafe Aphra, it's our chance to reflect upon the popularity of this blog and to think about widening our offering for women who are writing, who are writers, who want to be writing. In terms of the Cafe metaphor, we'll be extending our menu and adding some extra chairs and tables. Z might be the end of the alphabet, but we're still close to the beginning and, in terms of our readership, we're truly international with regular visitors from six out of the seven continents (anyone up for reading about  writing in Antartica?). 'Zee' or 'zed', I find that exciting!

Zoe Fowler

Friday, June 28, 2013

Y is for Yearning

The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
Samuel Johnson

Yearning lies at the heart of why we write. We yearn to create an alternative world, one which, if we're honest, we'd rather spend time in than anywhere else. We yearn to live as different people, achievable through our characters. We yearn to tell stories as a way of making sense of the world or maybe even to feel we have control over things in some small way, the prime movers of our fictional universes. Believing we have something to say we yearn for our voice to be heard. There are many other reasons people write, for catharsis, a way of dealing with traumatic events, as a way to preserve memories, but I believe it's yearning that drives a writer most strongly, that fires up that need to get to our desks and into our work.  

In the heart of a reader lies a similar yearning. Readers yearn for escape. They yearn to become someone else, to experience life from different perspectives. Readers yearn for order, meaning, resolutions, comeuppances, promises fulfilled, all those things real life doesn't provide, at least never in the way that's hoped for or expected.
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When we open a novel we're asking the writer to take us on a journey, to spirit us away. We're asking to be introduced to characters we want to become as real to us as members of our own family. Sometimes we long to see a side of ourselves reflected in those characters and while that isn't always a comfortable experience, when it happens it deepens our connection to those people and the skilful writer who created them. We aren't always seeking a story with a big white wedding at its climax, but often one which leaves us with a sense of hope and with the satisfaction that every scene was leading up to that showdown, that tearful confession, that murderer's unmasking. Everything in a novel, every event, every line of dialogue, has a purpose. How alluring, reassuring, when life so often feels like nothing more than a string of random occurrences.

Consumed by the nuts and bolts of writing, spelling and grammar rules, the structuring of sentences, word choices, it's easy to lose sight of our work as being created to have a life beyond our desks, a life in the mind of a reader. But if we're serious about publication this is exactly what we're striving, yearning, for. It can be daunting, too daunting at the tentative first draft stage, to consider readers with their sophistication and sharp minds, but it's important and it can be exciting. What writer wouldn't be greatly encouraged and inspired by the thought of his or her work speaking to the heart of even just one reader?

That in creating we can fulfil our fantasises and in turn fulfil those of a reader is surely one of writing's greatest rewards. It may take years of yearning to reach the point where we're accomplished enough as a writer to inspire in a reader everything we feel reading writers we admire, the sense of being transported, identification with a character because we see ourselves in them, the joy of savouring a stunning piece of description or a striking image. What could be more worthwhile?
Zoe White

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Y is for You

Writing starts with YOU.

Who you are now.

Where you come from and what you carry around inside of you.

Being a writer is using these parts of you to create work that engages and inspires people in an authentic way.

Who am I? I don’t know, it changes from day to day but one way I keep track of who I am is keeping a journal. My thoughts, dreams, aspirations, failures, rants and all the things I carry around inside uncensored in vomit size chunks, to track my progress as a person and as a writer.
Why do I want to be a writer? I don’t know but I do know what other writers have done for me. The first time I read Toni Morrison, I felt that she had shone a light into the darkest corner of my soul and helped me see what lurked there. When I read “the bluest eye” she lead me kicking and screaming into understanding and seeing the humanity of a character I would have condemned in real life as a monster.  It changed me profoundly forever.

Unlike most writers I came to literacy late at the age of ten. Reading a book by myself for the first time was a true experience of magic. That someone thousands of miles away or centuries away from where I was sitting had written their thoughts, their story down and by looking at the words I could see, hear and feel what they wanted me to experience. If that isn’t telepathy I don’t know what is.

And all the writers who came after that first book, George Orwell making me laugh so much I once nearly peed myself on a train, James Baldwin making me weep and feel things I didn’t know I had in me, Dostoevsky taking me to places I could never imagine going. That is what I want to do for other people. I may never achieve it but writing is my way of trying.

What do I have to say? I don’t know but when I do, that is when the pen is mightier than the sword. There’s that part of us as writers that wants a pat on the back, the recognition of publishers or massive readership or a way to prove to our doubters or family that we are not wasting our time. When we remove these crippling expectations and just write what we are passionate about it keeps us authentic, inspired and empowered.
Think of it this way. There are about seven billion people in the world. Even if your book, or film or whatever you are writing will only appeal to one in a million people, that is still seven thousand people who will engage, connect and appreciate whatever you have to say to them!

How do I keep the writer side of me going? Just by doing it. Writing consistently everyday and training myself not to worry that it won’t get anywhere or it’s not good enough. Being a writer is a vocation: a strong impulse, a summons, a strong feeling of suitability to a particular state, occupation or course of action.  So I say to the writer side of you, give in to the vocation, be passionate, be yourself and let the chips fall where they may.
Afia Nkrumah

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

X is for Xanthippe

Xanthippe was the wife of Socrates and her name means ‘yellow horse.’  That’s really all we know for sure, but her reputation has come down to us as a rather unpleasant nagging woman.  Socrates is alleged to have said that you can either have a nice wife and be an ordinary man or have Xanthippe and be a philosopher.

Those words he may or may not have said raise a question in my mind.  Aspiring writers certainly appreciate the support of their partners, children, other family members and friends.  But is it possible we also need our own versions of Xanthippe?  Should we try to find people who will not just support us but also nag us?

In the last few years, as I have tried to learn how to write novels, I’ve been very grateful to my teachers and fellow writers who have the kindness and commitment to demand that I set some words down on a page and, yes, nag me.  So here are some heartfelt thanks to people who have demanded I do more than I might have been inclined to do:

·         Thanks to my teacher in a Lifelong Learning class who set the assignment that we hand in a query letter, an outline of our novels and the first three chapters; his kind comments that I should send the package out to possible agents were premature, but have kept me going for several years.

·         Thanks to the three leaders of my local writing group who have insisted we play monthly writing games, writing for half an hour on scraps of paper, sitting at tables in the room we meet in on the top of an old pub across from the castle.  Even at those times when I think I’m unable to write (see B for Blocked), I write what I can and feel amazed at what I end up writing.

·         Thanks to a tutor on an Arvon course who insisted that we act out our hardest bits of dialogue (arguably the genesis of Café Aphra) and nagged me to think as hard as I could until I figured out how my protagonist who lives on another planet in 2683 could have possibly read Jane Austen.

·         Thanks to the peer from that Arvon course who kept our virtual community alive by setting up a website, and in a slightly Xanthippean manner insisted that we write a full chapter of our novel in the month following our return from the course.  That’s how I finished my first draft.

·         Thanks to all the friends who have set up Café Aphra’s November challenge and now our alphabet challenge.  I’m doing my best to get this in in time!! 

·         Thanks to my friends from an American writing course who, in their emails, gently insist that I take my writing seriously by, you know, actually doing some.  And thanks to my website peers who tell me that one of these days, if I keep working and redrafting my outlines, I really will learn how to plot.

Of course we know nothing about the true state of affairs in ancient Greece, but I think Xanthippe was probably a great help to her philosophical husband, perhaps by nagging him to get some of his thoughts down before he lost them.  I can hear her saying, if he didn’t want to use a tablet, why not just dictate his ideas to that nice young Plato…

Plato had nothing but good to say of Xanthippe.  After all, she may be the one who got him published.

Frances Hay

Monday, June 24, 2013

W is for Writers

I was going to take the easy way out and write about ‘writing’. Well, that is what this A to Z series is all about, isn’t it? Not being one to take the easy way out, I’ve decided to write not about writing, but about writers. And to narrow the field down further, this rant is going to be about other writers.

Other writers. We hate them, don’t we?

There is nothing new in our dislike of our adversaries other writers, as these quotes show.

Gustave Flaubert called George Sand “(a) great cow full of ink.” Charming. How about H. G. Wells’s opinion of George Bernard Shaw: “An idiot child screaming in a hospital.” If you think that’s bad, it pales into insignificance compared to the spat between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner said the Hemingway had “never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” But don’t feel too sorry for Hemingway who wondered whether his opponent really thought that “...big emotions come from big words?”
At least poets would be nicer to each other, wouldn’t they? WRONG! “I don’t think Robert Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls.” W. H. Auden; what a bitch.

Writers are still at it. Take what Harold Bloom said of the Harry Potter author.

“How to read ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.”

And while we’re on the subject of J. K. Rowling, let’s look at how much other writers earn.

James Patterson earned $94 million dollars in 2011, Stephen King made $39 million, Dean Koontz $19 million and good old J. K., five years after her last HP novel, made $17 million. And the rest of us? According to a 2008 survey by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (UK), the average earnings for a writer is £16,531 while the typical writer earned only £4,000. I say ‘only’; in the past twelve months my writing has earned me about £100. Thanks be to the gods of the internet who let me earn a few quid developing web sites.

But money isn’t everything, right? We’d write whether we got paid or not, wouldn’t we? So long as people were reading our work? Well, Rowling is still doing disgustingly well with over 450 million copies sold. Dan Brown’s latest tome sold 228,961 in it’s first week in the UK alone. I have sold under 100 copies of my ebook. Yup. Definitely living the dream here.

It’s not just these spectacularly fabulous but relatively talented authors we hate though. I keep my special wrath for all the useless, talentless hacks out there who self-publish drivel, thus diluting the professionalism of the good self-publishers.

And even worse than these chancers are the useless, talentless hacks who are published traditionally. With an advance on royalties. And an inflated opinion of their meagre talents. Bastards.

It’s enough to make you throw your pen at the wall and drown yourself in gin and despair.

But if I were to post this self-pitying proclamation on my Facebook wall, I know  loads of ‘other writers’ would offer hugs, tell me not to give up, share stories of their rejections and offer all sorts of advice to help.

Meh. Other writers. We hate them.


Nettie Thomson

And The Angels Cried and other stories on Amazon by Annette S Thomson

V is for Visiting

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I’m writing a story which is based in a town very like somewhere I know well, but haven’t been to for many years. A couple of months ago I was about 70 miles from this town for a meeting and visiting some friends. I was going to the theatre that night to see a play.   I was quite excited about this and also dreading it. On paper it read quite like the theme of this novel I’ve been working on for years. I’d decided to go, on my own.

I had an afternoon spare and a hire car so on the spur of the moment I decided to drive the 70 miles and visit this town. Check out some of the locations, walk the streets and go to the shops my main character goes to.  

It was a sunny afternoon which seemed to bring everyone out. My main character arrives in the town by bus after an absence of 20 odd years. There used to be swarms of school children pouring off and on buses on this main street at this time of day. But there were none now. A few streets away I found a new bus depot. I say new, but it looked a bit shabby as if it had been there for a while.

I went to the area where I imagined her living. There were a lot of boarded up houses and new developments. Where she went to college was partly demolished. There was no sign of the hairdressers or shop she worked in on Saturdays. OK - I have to come clean: I lived here as well for a while. And when I was writing the first draft of this story the town was clear there in my mind. The slight hill on the main street, the bad corner where you have to look several times before crossing. The smell on Wednesdays as it was market day with local farmers bringing in their cattle. It was a Wednesday and the cattle market was all closed up.

I walked around feeling a bit distraught that so much had changed. I went for a coffee and an ice cream as I tried to re-arrange my thinking - was this a good or bad thing? Did it matter that so much had changed to the fabric of the town. In fact I was wanting a bit of distance and didn’t want to name the town anyway. 
I sat and watched and listened to the women with children who ran about playing pretend families as their mothers drank coffee. The school girls beside me didn’t say much just texted and showed each other what they’d written. Giggling and excited. A group of boys walked in - different school uniforms. Two of the girls rushed to the toilets for a high level conference. Obviously the texting had worked, what to do next? They were flummoxed, the boys - they had potential - now they were here they weren’t sure what to do, so they ordered ice-cream.  

I loved watching this little scene unfold before me, hearing the accents and the turn of phrase so familiar to a time and helpful in placing my imaginary cast here. I could see the bus depot from where I sat. A small crowd was gathering, a police car arrived - no sirens, they got out, left their doors open, put on their hats and went to investigate. It wasn’t anything serious, nothing to disrupt the groups of girls and boys or the mothers and their children. Just an ordinary day in an ordinary town that has dominated my imagination for the past couple of years. 

I had another walk around and then decided I should leave, to beat the traffic and I was also getting a bit nervous that I might bump into someone I would vaguely remember, who might wonder what I was doing in town. I didn’t have an answer.  

The play was good and not, as I worried, too similar to my story. What did surprise me was how it fired something in my head about one of my other characters. It made me reflect on my earlier visit to the town and how things may change, but it’s how we remember them that’s important. How having your senses open to the familiar and unfamiliar and spending time on your own walking around a place can challenge your perceptions and have some interesting and unexpected results.
Pauline Moore

Sunday, June 23, 2013

U is for Under the Skin

I’m going for subcutaneous today: meaning under the skin, though the outer layer is pretty important too.  

Look at an illustration of skin and you should find either two or three main layers depicted.

1. Epidermis. This is the outermost layer that people see instantly when they look at someone. The Epidermis is, in the way of nature, not confined to being a simple layer. This is not intended as a biology lecture so I’ll simplify it to five separate cell levels.

2. Dermis. This it that lovely inner layer of connective tissue with those tiny little vessels that link up to the pores on the outer epidermis. In the dermis you’ll find hair follicles, lymph glands, and vessels for transporting blood and other bodily needs. Sweat produced here helps to maintain body temperature and sebaceous glands produce sebum to keep the outer layers moist and supple.

3. Hypodermis. This is not technically part of the skin layers but we all need our skin to be attached to our bones and ligaments and the hypodermis does the job admirably…or in my case when you’re of a ‘certain age’ things don’t quite connect as easily as they used to. Like when an injury to soft tissue and ligaments can result in your epidermis and dermis being a bit spongy against your bones…for months! But I digress - Biology talk over.

(For another lovely coloured image of skin see here on Wikimedia commons - if you are procrastinating and need a break… )

But…What does that have to do with my writing?

When defining a character in a novel I’m thinking that a lot of attention needs to be paid to all of those levels  - many layers on the surface and also deeper levels under the skin - the perception of the reader needing to be addressed very carefully. Is my writing going to leave the reader at a complete distance, or is it such that the reader really feels they are seeing my character at all levels? Or even better is the reader experiencing being my character? How can I adjust my writing to ensure the reader gets the best experience?

Let’s look at number 1. Epidermis. I need to make my reader see that immediate front to my character, the basic visual – though not in a boring or totally descriptive way, and not two dimensional either. In my current writing, a follow-on novel, I have a character who appeared in the first one. He was described as being even more handsome than the hero of the first book, but little was given of his under the skin levels. He was, in many ways, truly a remote secondary character.

In the current book he is a main character. His physical appearance undergoes dramatic changes- battle with the Roman Army and a searingly sharp gladius tended to do that! Therefore, for my readers, I need to show changes to superficial and visible levels. Since it’s also a stand alone novel the description of the before and after has to be carefully interwoven within the plot. Some would say writing about superficial description is the easy bit but let’s get back to that perception thing. What I, as a writer, perceive and enjoy may be different from my reader, but I need to make that reader believe in what I perceive through specific vocabulary. Here are some options for description, mostly on a surface level.:

Version 1: He was a handsome warrior, tall and competent in weaponry.  This writing is distant and cold…even boring.

Version 2: Few surpassed his height and strength. Towering over opponents less able to wield a broadsword had stood him in good stead many a time and had been contributory to him becoming tribal champion. Winning a woman’s favour came easily. His appearance, said to be very fine to look at, had gained him great acclaim amongst the females of the settlement.

This takes a reader closer to the character but it could still be better. There’s still a bit of reserve here.

Version 3: The ability to fiercely brandish his Celtic broadsword from aloft, as few others had the strength to manage, was a fine reputation for him to have gained. Vanquishing smaller and weaker opponents satisfied him as nothing else could… save, perhaps, the winning of the most beautiful, beddable female which his good looks would attract anyway, whether or not he achieved tribal champion status.

I think this is closer to the character but…what do you think? Is the POV (point of view) deep enough for it to be him ‘speaking’? (Without changing from third person to first person.)

Version 4: The stench of warm blood, of gut-wrenched entrails, and of faeces of man and horse clinging were irrelevant. His blood dripped sword whacking from aloft; heady satisfaction mingling with sweat across combat-spattered skin; and battle cries louder and more strident than most – that was exactly what drew female attraction and he knew it.

What do you think about this one?

When describing my character’s development I also need to consider Number 2. Dermis - that wonderfully connective layer.

My Celtic warrior has changes to his physical self but also personality changes. His life has been drastically altered so for my readers I need to show those under the skin layers - how they eventually heal, and to what degrees they heal. From being rated as a handsome warrior, though he is not a vain one, he has to contend with a new appearance. Scars to a Celtic warrior’s face I don’t believe could have mattered so much back then as perhaps it would now. I believe what would have been psychologically much more damaging would have been physical impairments which meant prowess and physical abilities were curtailed. In my writing, I need to work through all of those dermis layers and ensure my readers are empathising with temper changes and fluctuations of mood till the character has changed sufficiently to be living in his ‘new’ skin and in his new situations. What is his new motivation? How can he achieve new goals. What will the conflict be in getting him to be successful in his new skin.

If pores are blocked then the appearance might not be so fine. If the sweat glands don’t work so well then the temperature fluctuates. How debilitating can that be to a character who wants to be fit and healthy? Hale and hearty? Stable sebum levels make the skin supple and well ‘oiled’. I need to show how my character copes with ‘dermis’ layers not functioning- both temporarily and permanently as his character development progresses throughout the novel. Tension and rigidity need to be portrayed, at times, as he comes to terms with his new self. Accommodation of new situations has to be made evident in my writing. When blood flows properly through all skin levels I need to be sure the reader knows this is eventually happening. Avoiding repetition, making my character really grow through that process of overcoming adversity is paramount to enjoyment of the story.

Considering Number 3. Hypodermis. All parts of my character need to connect internally but also need to connect to the reader’s perception of how ‘he is hanging together’ within the plot structure. It’s not just a matter of how he changes but of how other characters interact with him and yet also develop in their own right as the plot thickens and matures. Inter-connectivity matters a lot since the perception of one character of another can also show development. Lots of levels need to be mixed, matched and connected for the reader’s experience to be a successful one.

That is not to say there is no place in a piece of writing for mixtures of Version 1, or Version 2 or 3 or 4 as described earlier. To avoid reader boredom it is a skilful mingling of all types of description that, I feel, needs to be achieved. 
Does that sound like a plan? I’m still working on that task. How about you?

Nancy Jardine

Nancy Jardine can be found at the following places:

Amazon UK author page author page   Twitter @nansjar   Google+

Saturday, June 22, 2013

T is for Time

As I sit here, needing to imminently submit my blog post to the wonderful Cafe Aphra, I know T can only be for Time. 

Time is the most precious thing we have and the one thing I would most eagerly part with money for - if it could be bought. I suppose in some senses it can be bought; if you are rich you don’t have to work and therefore you have bags of time, whereas if you work in a low paid job and have to work all the hours to make ends meet then you’ll have very little - of course there are various grades in between. But, as Tolkein’s Gandalf once said, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’

Don’t waste your time
Just a few years ago, when I was a cool young singleton living in London (!?), I had no ties apart from my fantastic job, which I always put more hours into than perhaps I ought. The rest of my time I spent hanging out in wine bars, or at home doing more ‘work’, watching TV or doing housework (which incidentally is, past a very basic point of standard cleanliness, probably THE biggest waste of time know to (wo)man). Now life is different. I have more responsibilities and more obligations - and what has happened? I’ve taken up the piano and began to pass grades, I started writing a novel and screenplays and I’m trying to get fit. I have so much less time than I ever had and yet I seem to produce so many more tangible outcomes than ever before.  I look back at the hours I wasted watching stupid TV programmes, or crying about not having a boyfriend, or drinking with people I didn’t like, going on holiday to hot but soul-less places and I cringe. I even lament all those extra hours I spent in work thinking how proud the company would be of me, what a difference I was making - I’m sure I did, but certainly not commensurate with the hours of my life I wasted.
Plan your time
OK I confess, I don’t do this very well - after all I wouldn’t be panicking about this article if I did. On the rare occasions I have got tough on myself and planned my days and my weeks, I get so much more done. I do things in a better order and, most importantly, if I stick to the plan I even do things I might not feel like doing - like going to an exercise class. If this doesn’t sound like you, at least set yourself a few deadlines and if you have friends who can nag you about them, all the better. I heard a radio presenter on Radio 4 say the other day: ‘There’s nothing like a tight deadline to knock the nonsense out of you’ and it’s so true. The one time when you really realise how much more you are capable of achieving than you normally do, is when you don’t have time to waste; you just do, do, do. More often than not the result is as good as if you’d spent hours, days, weeks, or years planning, revising and ruminating. What’s more you’ve then saved that time so you can do more with it. Then comes the trickiest part - deciding where to spend your time.

Picture the scene, you have one hour to spare do you..:
A)  Give the house a quick once over? (You’ve put it off for long enough)
B)  Play with your children? (They want to play tickle monster so you’ll need to be energetic)
C) Write that chapter you’ve been meaning to finish for a long time? (You’ve not had time to write for ages)
D) Have a bath/relax? (You deserve it after all)
E)  Finish that report for work that’s due in on Monday?
F)  Catch up with friends or family who you keep meaning to call?
G) Have some one on one time with the love in your life?
H) Go shopping?
I)    Sort out the household bills and admin?
J)   Do some exercise?
Afraid I have no advice to offer except that unless there’s a risk of botulism in the kitchen you can probably give the house a miss.  

Tina Smith

Friday, June 21, 2013

S is for Short Stories

We've spent a lot of time writing about writing. Today it's time to just write.

In honour of National Flash Fiction Day which begins at midnight tonight and will see micro-fiction posted on their blog every twenty minutes for 24 hours (look out for some familiar names around 1, 3 and 4am!), we are going to post some short pieces written by our many and varied Café Aphraites over the course of today and maybe tomorrow. If you would like to post something, email it to as soon as you can and we'll try our best to get it posted up here.

Off we go....

 The Children 

The train rolls along beneath my feet, rumbling along the track through the birches.  I sit slumped in my window seat, listening to the music through my headphones.   

I think about Elsa.  Last night in that dark grey techno bar she spilt her cold red wine down my shirt, as she leant across the table, whispering frantically while smiling, flashing her eyes as if we were in a very different story. The sticky wine trickled down my neck.  I leant across the table and stared at Elsa’s eyelids, closed with pain.  I arranged my face as if I were trying for a kiss. ‘Got a smoke?’ I asked. 

She blinked, then passed me her tarnished cigarette case.  I took out a neatly rolled cigarette and put it to my mouth, while I memorised the map engraved underneath the lid. 

They may have been watching.  Maybe not.   

We’ve emerged from the shadows of the woods.  Outside the window I see white-streaked grey sky, barren fields.  Carrion crows swoop down to pick at last year’s gleanings. I’m completely lost now but if we get through the tunnel, I should be able to recognise the landmarks.  I should be able to find the path.

The children are quieter now.  The guard’s dog patrols the corridor of our carriage.  It snaps its jaws at the children’s frail, bumpy knees.   

I pretend that I’m not with the children—that it’s nothing to me if that dog tries to eat them alive.  I slump against the window, looking out at the flooded fields. I listen to my music.   

When we get through the tunnel, I’ll jump.  I can hide in the marshes. 

It’s a long game we’re playing.  I can’t save the children.  They can’t save me. 

I turn up my music.  I close my eyes.  The guard has administered the drugs now.  The children are sleeping.  I pretend to sleep as well, but I’m still listening to my music.

The train shudders beneath my feet and then stops completely, quite a ways before the tunnel.  The sleepy dog lifts up its wolf-sized head and growls. 

I try to remember the path, where it forks, how to avoid circling back toward the station.  I recall silver cobwebs on the bridge, and the silver scratches on Elsa’s cigarette case, showing me my path, my way out. 

I know where this train is going.  But I can’t save the children.

I have one job and one job only.  I have to find that path by the river.

I am the child, the true Baby Moses.  I need to hide myself in the bulrushes. 

If we are to win this thing, I must forget all about the children.

The train starts up again, jerking forward.  The pig-tailed girl in the seat in front of me wakes with a cry.  The dog leaps.  The guard strikes.  The girl screams.  He shoves her toward the other end of the carriage. 

I turn up my music to the loudest setting.
Frances Hay
Specks are the local name for glasses here. I am from the north east of Scotland and lots of words have different meanings from their English origins.  Some don't even exist in the dictionary! 
For me I have had a little jolt into the future and the realisation that I am getting just that little bit older, and things don't last forever, however old I don't feel on a good day. 
I remember my dad coming home from the hospital with the news that due to his long existing condition of diabetes he was now faced with his eyes failing and pending blindness. I am a positive person and suggested to my father that he would be fortunate in that he knew the colours and shades of life as he had been visually drinking them all in for years. Sadly for my father he never got to use his wonderful imagination, he passed away long before his eyes gave up.  So my dear dad I am now walking down the road behind you, with the realisation that...... 
I need glasses and the fog  has been lifted for me today! For the past few months I have been thinking I was going crazy.  Fog would come and go as I was trying to read, no headaches or other symptoms showed up.  I do suffer from ME and have been told in the past that as I am tired the muscles in my eyes will take longer to adjust.  I have been putting it down to that.  The optician did inform me that if you are lucky enough to get over forty years of age without glasses, when you do need glasses it is a sudden realisation that kicks in.  This is the case with me! 
Working in an office with figures, one cannot just guess what we are seeing.  Points in the wrong place can mean trouble for everyone! The brain is a wonderful organ. Mine had been busy working out what I wasn't seeing and filling in the gaps for me.  I never fail to be amazed how our bodies perform beyond all expectations.  
Having grasped the idea that glasses were needed, which ones to choose?  The lady in the shop informed me 'for a start the lenses will be £68.  Fine, but why would I buy glasses without lenses? Then there was an array of options in coatings and types and colours of just the lenses! A student appeared and asked if she can sit in on the consultation.  I believe that everyone has the right to learn and had no problem with a second opinion on which glasses might be best for me.  
Firstly, she says, do you want to look like you are wearing glasses or not?  Mmmmmm, tough one.  
Some glasses were easy to dismiss.  They were uncomfortable or they slipped down my noses, too tight, don't like the colour, just don't like! However there were far too many in the maybe pile. On the second run I was able, with a little assistance, to reduce the pile to a manageable 6 pairs.  One pair I had allowed to be in there was a pair that Elton John might have been proud of!  Bright red frames with black and white side flashes, they did look great but I chickened out.  Maybe just not that confident! Got them down to a pair that felt comfortable and looked ok on.  Then was informed a second mortgage was required to pay for said glasses.  
I will be off to pick them up next week.
Sandra Murdoch

On Monday mornings I stride over tiny pieces of coloured tissue paper that pour down the steps of the Town Hall on my way to work.
Looking closely at the piles of confetti, I can identify horseshoes, hearts, fluffy clouds and stars in a tangled mass. By the time I arrive at my desk I am adrift within the fresh, warm joy falling, like clean sheets, upon the newlyweds. I smile at the luck they feel at finding each other, shade my eyes from the sparkles that fill their eyes as they gaze at one another, flush slightly at the image of their bodies curved together.
As the week goes by the fragments become muddied and torn, scatter in the wind. Those couples; how will time weather their relationship?  Will affection and tenderness be blown away in the breeze caused by repeated irritations and maddening habits?  Do the differing needs of men and women tear at the thin lining of their union? Have the responsibilities of a mortgage, bills and children dulled the gloss of their love?
By Friday there is nothing left, the steps are clear, ready for Saturday.
Diane Scott

Thursday, June 20, 2013

R is for Rewrite

Yes, that’s right. Rewrite. What else is there to say? One must write, when one must, because – as we’ve clearly seen from this blog – there’s no other way for most of us and we’re just stuck with it I suppose. No, that’s ungrateful. I’m sure to live a “normal” life without stories constantly running through one’s head would be a dull and graceless experience. But yes, it has its problems too.

One of those problems is that, after the fleeting moment of magic has flit – that oh so rare and precious time when the words are flowing onto the page and one feels that one is flying – when that is past, as it usually is, then what is left is to cut, cut, cut, edit, edit, edit, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
We’ve all heard it: “A real writer doesn’t write, he (or she) rewrites.” (Well obviously they must write something first, one assumes, in order to have the raw material needed in order to then rewrite it.) But you know what I mean.

Sometimes rewriting takes so long that one wonders if it is ever going to end. If the story, finally, one day, will find its rightful resting place, whether you the author, will find the right ending, the one where you go: “Aha! I’ve got it!” and it just rings true. Everyone nods their heads and instinctively knows, yes, that’s the one. The right one.

In fact, as one of my fellow Aphraites has pointed out before me, very often the trick is to know when, indeed, to just “leave it”. When to stop, when to stop the tinkering. When to leave the rewriting and just say, “OK, it’s done now.” Because it never really is finished, is it? Apparently Picasso (or was it Pollock?) once said that a painting is never really finished - “it just stops in interesting places”. Surely true, but I tell myself that, in that case, some of my stories must have seen the seven wonders of the world and taken some damn fine photographs.

I actually feel embarrassed at times to find myself rewriting bits of material – stories, usually – that I originally wrote years ago and that have not been accepted into the writing competitions or magazines I sent them. (“Still that old piece? Oh God, not again, please...”) And yet something still tells me there is something to it, something worth saving, a kernel in there, at least. And so I open up the file once more, on what? Its 30th version perhaps, by now, and rewrite it again, according to a new competition’s guidelines, to see if this time it will hit the right note.
Perhaps I am wrong to do this. Perhaps I should just learn to leave it and let bygones be bygones. And yet.... there is still that itch, deep down inside of me, irresistible as the voice of temptation, hissing into my ear, “Go on - just one more time! Remember perseverance is all... this time might be the one.” It is a long process, the validity of which I frequently – and increasingly – question.

Yet it was recently confirmed to me by another, more experienced (screenplay) writer friend, who is also a film director. He made me feel much better – more than he could possibly know or imagine – by assuring me that everything I am doing is worth it, because it is all contributing somehow to the diaphanous process that is (apparently) happening in my head. The process of making the stroy, of finding the thread. He said to absolutely keep everything you have ever written, even the real shit stuff, and to always go back to pieces you wrote years ago, because they are like a kind of puzzle, he said, and in the meantime you never know - you may have found those pieces you were missing.

Sara Roberts

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Q is for Quality

‘An inherent or distinguishing characteristic or an essential character.’ 

Reference Shakespeare “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” This quality is definitely strain’d  in certain parts of the world today, witness the slaughter in the Middle East. Having lived there for 17 years I found the people had the same aspirations as me. A peaceful life, quality education for their children, and quality jobs and income for all. I never met anyone who approved of “terrorism” or even the disruption of other people’s lives: live and let live was the mantra.

Quality as a personality or character trait can be portrayed by a person’s generosity or otherwise. A mean personality being portrayed as a person of “poor quality” and the opposite as being “top quality,” or from the top drawer. Shakespeare’s Shylock springs to mind. Quality goods were always kept in the top drawer whereas poorer quality was hidden away in a bottom drawer, apart from a girl hoping to wed and stocking a ‘bottom drawer’ for her future. For example in Sue Grafton’s ‘Private Eye’ in her ‘Alphabet’ series, Kinsey Millhone has a bottom drawer that she feels will never be opened again after two failed marriages. She would like to marry her landlord, whose quality of life she envies, but feels the 50 year age gap is a bit extreme.

As a degree or standard of excellence, goods and clothes can be judged by their quality.  A person can also be judged by the quality of their apparel, Beau Brummell for example was thought to be the epitome of fashion impressing the future George IV no less.

Woolworths were initially popular due to their low prices but as incomes rose, needs changed and fashion labels became de rigueur, “Woolies” was seen as a poor quality outlet and ultimately went out of business, victims of their own initial success so to speak price having become less important. My daughters would have died rather than go to school with a ‘Woolies’ item, even Marks and Spencer labels had to be removed.  Things are changing though where price doesn’t seem to be an indication of quality, witness the success of Primark and other low-cost stores against the decline in sales at other perceived quality retailers.

Quality of life is difficult to define. In the distant past for some it was as simple as having a roof over their heads and enough food to support their invariably large family. For others it was having a huge country mansion, a large staff to see to their every need, and a smaller town house preferably in London to spend the winter in. I’ve seen people living in the interior of Oman with no electricity; running water was a stream flowing through the village. Houses were made of wicker work walls with roofing of banana tree fronds. To them their quality of life was good, and I must admit they seemed happy with their lot. I’ve also met people who lived in unbelievable splendour and were as miserable as sin; their quality of life was poorer than the villagers with nothing.

I read that the quality of writing has deteriorated in the past 50 years or so, I disagree. I find Dickens ponderous, Thomas Hardy and George Elliot dull. I prefer Jane Austen for her humour. But her writing wasn’t as popular as Dickens and George Elliot. Dickens and Elliot were supposedly quality writers and Austen superficial, I’m not sure that that applies today. I like a lot of modern writers, C.J. Sanson’s Shardlake series for example and Louise Penny’s Gamache, as well as Sue Grafton’s Alphabet murders as mentioned earlier. To me they are quality writers as they deliver pleasure. I don’t have to think what the language is trying to impart, maybe I’m a superficial reader.

I am at present trying to write a novel and am finding it very difficult to get on paper what I think, in a meaningful way.  I have nothing but admiration for authors who succeed.  Some modern authors of course don’t deserve to succeed, issuing reams of formulaic writing in which the plots are the same, only the names and venues are changed. To me that isn’t quality writing but it sells, so obviously someone likes it and thinks its quality.

So Q for quality what does it mean? Different things to different people, quality really is in the eye of the beholder.

Sandy McIntosh

Monday, June 17, 2013

P is for Purpose

A few alphabet letters back I advised you not to write. Given that you are still here and still reading, I suspect that you are still writing. So, let's move the debate forward. Sit down for a moment, place your left hand alluringly close to the corner of your mouth (see diagram below for classic 'thinking woman's pose'), and ask yourself.....What is the purpose of your writing?

It is possible that when you think of 'purpose', your writing doesn't get a look-in to the long list of purposes which drive your life. In that case, you might want to shift things about. Get creative. If, for example, the only purpose that springs to mind is mothering, then write your own bedtime stories a la J.K. Rowling; if your dominating purpose is to keep the rabbits from eating your vegetable patch then write a story about a rabbit learning to leave your lettuces alone a la Beatrix Potter, and if your imagination is worn thin by your daytime job of managing a bank, say, then get creative with the staff handbook and evaluation policies, or scribe an alternative universe in which the discrepancy between the richest and the poorest is reversed by a canny bank manager... just like yourself.

If, writing is already part of the grand purpose in your life, then you are one lucky writer. You have learnt the lesson that writing is more than a hobby; you know that it's bigger and more important, more vital, than just moving a pen across a sheet of paper or typing out a random series of letters (with the possible exception, of course, of Jack Kerouac who proselytized the value of purposeless writing... and produced the kind of prose which people either love or condemn; Truman Capote famously commented that  'That's not writing, it's typing.')

George Orwell was a big believer in writing being purposeful. In his 1946 essay 'Why I Write', he identified four main purposes for writing:
  1. sheer egoism;
  2. aesthetic enthusiasm; 
  3. historical impulse;
  4. political purpose.
I love the universalizing confidence of Orwell's thought. According to his list of purposes, I am never wasting my time when I am writing. If the activity seems a futile waste of my time, I need only check my actions against Orwell's list to realize that I am actually engaged in a purposive, and therefore valuable, activity. Today, for example, I indulged purposefully in the sheer egoism of doodling the letters of my name into an elaborate graffiti rather than focusing upon a telephone call with my new medical insurance provider; I titillated my aesthetic enthusiasm by redrafting my descriptions of Mrs. Hambleton's imagined death in 1908 (chapter 17 of my novel - and, now, largely based upon the fate I wish upon a nameless medical insurance clerk whose telephone manner should be recognized in any kind of performance review as 'an area ripe for improvement'); I satisfied a minor historical impulse by writing a page in my journal late at night before beginning this blog; and I expended energy on micropolitics through an elaborately worded note to my daughter's gym teacher excusing her from today's sporting activities. All purposeful and, therefore, meaningful stuff. The fact that the washing machine is still waiting to be emptied, a lettuce has turned to mush in the back of the fridge, and the tomato plants need watering, is neither here nor there. I have been writing!

But, frivolity aside, writing does have a serious purpose to my life. It is more than a hobby. I don't write because I want to be famous. I'm not sure that I write because I want people to read my book with bated breath and admiration. I write because it is vital to me. The story of my novel has me in its thrall and the demons need to be exorcised. When I write, I am a better person. Part of me, which would otherwise languish neglected in some unrecognized part of my life, has been fed. As Jeanette Winterson says, 'Creativity is on the side of health - it isn't the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.' And that is the purpose I need.

Zoe Fowler

Sunday, June 16, 2013

O is for Overheard

If you are a person who likes to write  - whose thoughts are full of the lives, habits and quirks of others  - a fat, juicy, overheard comment laden with potential is like (I imagine) a hit of crack cocaine. Once those words, so rich with ideas, images and outlines, reach your sensitive ears you are hooked. Many a short story or piece of flash fiction has been launched into life by an overheard phrase or conversation. I expect that there are more authors than care to admit that the dialogue in their latest novel was lifted directly from their local café or bus stop.  Is this wrong? An invasion of privacy? I don’t think so. The overheard words and sentences are generally used as a starting point, a prompt for the mind of a writer to start doing what it does best; creating other lives. The finished product will be a far cry from the snippet that began its creation. The words are usually changed to protect the innocent. 
Some overheard remarks have stuck with me, still make me shake my head in wonder or chuckle with amusement. Some I have already used – a drunken conversation about the futility of life features verbatim in the second chapter of my novel - some are still ruminating in my head, ready to spring out at the right moment. Like the time I visited the catholic Disneyland that is Lourdes, France a few years ago. We joined the flowing sea of people heading towards the Grotto in a steady drizzle, passing endless souvenir shops crammed with every conceivable incarnation of the Virgin Mary as a 21st century knick-knack: key rings, t shirts, framed holograms, water bottles with detachable head, snow globe. I heard the soft Irish accent of two women behind me. 
‘Ach, it’s a pity about the rain,’ one lamented.

‘Ah,’ the other admonished, ‘but we only came to pray.’
The very different agendas of those women’s visit to France was summed up so succinctly in those two sentences that they live on in my head seven years later and one day I shall enjoy writing their tale.
Of course, generally it’s not so much the words these people speak that writers are caught by, but what they reveal about the speaker. If you ever struggle to ‘show, not tell’ in your own writing, imagine you are sat with your back to someone, listening to them speak. Their words can reveal enough for you to create an entire scenario, relationship or life for them: if that can happen without you seeing them, their thoughts or their gestures, then you can recreate that on paper.
Travel offers great opportunities for eavesdropping and people watching the mass of humanity. One of my fellow Café Aphraite’s lives in Spain and speaks several languages. Train journeys packed with tourists are rich pickings as, believing themselves  cloaked under a language barrier, they are less guarded with their conversations. She once sat transcribing every word of a British mother and daughter, who thought themselves surrounded by Spaniards, onto her laptop. The conversation was awkward, painfully stilted and exposed a complicated relationship that my friend could not understand. It gave her plenty to think about, though, and the birth of a short story.
Sometimes it’s not so much what you overhear as what you observe that grips your imagination. I recently took a train trip myself – a mammoth thirteen hours travelling from one end of the UK to the other. And then I came back. For people watching opportunities I highly recommend it. I was treated to an endless procession of men, women, families, single parents, students, disgruntled grandparents, jolly uncles, well behaved children, badly behaved children, excited people going on holiday and sweaty, tired looking people coming home. Around Yorkshire I was particular fascinated by three very different families sat on opposite sides of the carriage. On one side was a stout, elderly woman who had been visiting one of her four sons and his family. A divorced man who had had his three young children to stay with him for the holidays sat beside her as his children sat squashed in the row behind him. The woman told the man about how awful her sons wives were, all of them, none of them wanted her to visit and were rude to her when she did. Then it was his turn; his ex-wife was very difficult, he hardly got to see his beloved children, she chopped and changed the custody agreement to suit her. Whilst they exchanged their woes, his children were running riot and his sorry tale was punctuated by yelling at them to shut up. Across the carriage was another family of a grandmother, her two granddaughters and their Uncle. He got on to help them with their bags but before he could get off the train left the station. All four of them found it hilarious, despite the fact that, as the man said, he’d left his car on a double yellow line outside the station. The broad range of dynamics and outlooks was fascinating.
All this is wonderful fodder for fiction. Any one of those people or the sentences they said to each other could be used to create a character, to flesh out one you have already invented or to fuse some vague elements that you feel could become an individual. We, as writers, need to learn to take what we can from what we observe and use it to feed our imaginations.
Sometimes, you are lucky enough to overhear some real gems that will keep you chuckling for years.  A friend from my writing group was once stood at a bus stop, listening to two elderly women chatting about their friends ‘lovely wee doggie’.
‘Well,’ said one, in a broad Doric accent, ‘it’s nae bonnie ony mair.’
‘It’s as flat as a bannock ‘cos it was run o’er by a bus.’

What have you overheard?

Diane Scott