Monday, 31 January 2011

Concentration 0, workload beckoning 6 million

Well, I'm back in Devon to the joys of central heating and a cosy Aga heated kitchen (well, it's an Esse but it heats the room up a treat) but I have no concentration for work. I don't know what happens when I miss a day's work but it takes me so long to get back into it it runs into the journey back...I should be writing the book, reading off my reading list (I'm tackling Incarceron by Catherine Fisher - amazing book, scary world though) but I'm mooching about ridiculously easily distracted. Oh, the cat's scratching himself, how interesting. I could go and get an apple - maybe not. Oh, all right then, just one. Ooh, clementines... I don't know how to get that mind set back again. I'm going to sit down at chapter 9 for ten, long minutes and see what happens. I shall report back. Am I the only person who does this?

OK, ten minutes did turn into an hour of editing, I can see where I have to go and have found a major cock-up along the way. But I don't seem to be able to write anything new. I have to look at these structured poems and I just need some sort of freewrite or starting point. perhaps I should write a poem about blocked creativity but hasn't everyone? And I'm hungry again. This much fruit may not be safe.

In the meantime I can rest my fuzzy brain against the stove and stay warm! Back to the reading list.

Friday, 28 January 2011

My scores are going down!

My OU scores have slipped below a distinction - that's how hard this bloody course is and the critique especially! I wrote it (OK, really quickly) but got penalised for not including enough examples from other people's work. Now I have to get a good mark (over 80) for TMA 5 and better still for no. 6 though I'm fairly confident about the EMA and the last assignment. On the plus side, the big assignment - TMA05, is open, you can do short stories, poetry or drama or even life writing (though I can't cope with life writing) and I thought I might have a play with some poetry after all. If it doesn't work out I'll write a short story, it's not like shorts aren't fun to write although I know my long fiction is much better. But I fancy writing sonnets and sestinas, I like rhyme. I just need to keep the scores up, though I don't really know why since I don't need the qualification at all and the book, though good, isn't the inspiration that the BRB (big red book) was. A215 was such a brilliant course, it's hard to top that really. If the diploma wasn't being withdrawn I would have done the course next year and probably got more out of it. Heigh ho.

Having my bear here is lovely, and going home will be a nice break for a few days. Then I'm back to do battle with the next modules.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

TMA03 is in!

Well, the critique is in and despite all my avoidant tactics, it wasn't bad when I came to it. My fellow student had written something that was sufficiently ripe for improvement for me to come up with a few ideas. The one thing he didn't do was identify a main protagonist early on. Now the course talks about Tobias Wolff's story Bullet in the Brain, and it's clear from the first word who the story is about. I think that helps you identify with the character, are more willing to suspend disbelief and go into that world when you care about (or in Anders case, are interested in his fate). I was surprised by the exercise, it did make me think about the role of courses and writing books in the development of my own writing. Sometimes, you feel like you're out on a  limb doing something creatively different because that's where it took you, but often you find that, actually, you've stuck to the basic format. You've internalised all those 'rules' and 'suggestions' that books and courses provide, and that makes it more accessible to the reader. By the way, I liked the story and the second half was excellent, once I was involved with a character.

Meantime I've been left with nothing apart from the novel to write and a long list of books to read. I did a bit on the novel, that was fun, and have read White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick. It's a gruesome Gothic horror for kids that takes three points of view - in different fonts no less. One, a 1790's cleric, a new girl in a  seaside village, and her contemporary, a strange little character. I loved it, though the head swapping is a bit much between the girls sometimes, especially at the end. It does say something about how complex we can get with the more sophisticated young audience. It's really dark, but not gratuitous though I did get a bit spooked out in the dark with Rebecca, in the horrible mansion with all the deaths. What can I say, I'm easily spooked - I worried myself writing bits of Borrowed Time.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Done toolkit and theories!

After much hassle and gently thumping my head against the desk a few times, I have completed all assignments from semester one for the MA. I've also started (but not yet finished) the critique for A363 and the end is in sight! 5 assignments, 18 thousand words. Phew. It seems strange, but I don't have any reading or writing to do (especially) so I will just potter on with the book. I think I need to get to the halfway mark to put it in for the dissertation but, ideally, I will submit the second half if I've got that far. I'm reading children's books on the reading list at the moment. I can recommend My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick especially.

It's a raw heroic tale of 1600's vampires (I know, not more vamps I hear you cry. Well, I cried, anyway) but it's refreshing and a very grown up supernatural thriller. I suppose the word I would use for it is clean, there's no unnecessary baggage, the characters have just enough words to make them vivid and the action is thrilling. Sedgwick has cut away unnecessary blather to leave a really big story in a small book, ideal for teenagers - and me. It's what I am trying to achieve with Borrowed Time so I shall be especially glad to hear him talk about his books on my course. The only downside is I had to buy the next book to see what happened, and I had an Amazon moment and bought several other books. Oops! We're going to need an extra Luton van at this point, to move back to Ilfracombe, just for the books... 

Monday, 24 January 2011

One poem short but novel at 23 000 words

I'm a poem short for my assignment. I'm happier with my work now, and they sound good (the acid test, for poetry, and for fiction really). But they have shrunk as I cut out the predictable, the clever-for-its-own-sake stuff, and various cliches. Which leaves me about a poem short. My instinct is to bypass the 'good' stuff' that's been peer reviewed in the past and go for something a bit more personal. ('good' being a relative term here!). Meanwhile, I'm living on way to little sleep. The word starts to look strange and dangerous when you're tired. I did manage six hours last night but still had to get up to send no.3 son off on the bus because the previous night no.1 son headed off at 3 in the morning to go skiing. His clock didn't go off  but that was OK, I was already up. I wish I could say all that extra time was spent writing but sadly, I'm too tired to be able to concentrate most of the time. I'm going to try and catch up tonight and get back on with the novel.

This is my November walk poem, written in one of those 'got to write this down!' frenzies after a lovely walk along the Tarka trail towards Woolacombe.

Life and Death in November

We walk, descend into valleys
creased onto glacial curves,
speckled with sheep.
Rams, indigo raddled,
scent the armchair ewes,
trying the nearly-in-season
and the just-out-of-season;
blueing their backs with attempted lambs.
We creep past the bull, massive
behind the squat fence of wire and posts,
buttressed by blackened thorns.
One horn scratches an armoured shoulder.
Crows swagger after beetles or mice,
wing feathers clattering like ash keys.
Magpies cackle in stereo.
Goldfinches arrive in serrated flight,
dropping and rising onto teazle heads.
The wind rolls over the cold-stalled grass,
strips trees and impregnates the sea
with jagged surf.
Walls of un-mortared slate
perch on banks, anchored
with shrub roots and skeletal nettles.
Berries incandesce in scarlet and purple,
shrivelling in the frost.
A sparrowhawk claps from an oak,
indifferent, amber-eyed,
looping into the next killing tree.
Mole hills erupt, earth swelling,
and wrecked shells band the footpath.
A blackbird turns splinters over
for writhing snails, bubbling in the air.
A spider hurries ahead, back to her killing tree,
mugwort, hung with seeds, belled with webs,
mazed with silk wrapped carcases.
A late butterfly loops from plant to plant,
a magpie follows, eyes on her egg filled belly.
A raven, big as a buzzard, gazes out to sea.

I have now finished chapter 8 and am slowly writing chapter 9. No. 1 son says he likes the pace and tension, and my last draft of the books died in the middle so I'm thinking about new dilemmas and dangers for the characters. I'm also doing lots of research on things like John Dee's books and ceremonial magick, which is fascinating, especially in the old English. 

e.g. ...and for as much as, many yeers, in many places, far & nere, in many bokes, & sundry languages, I have sowght, & studied; and with sundry men conferred, and with my owne reasonable discourse laboured, thereby to fynde or get some ynckling, glyms or beame of such the foresaid radicall truthes.   

Me too, Dr. Dee! I just wish I had more of an ynckling, glyms or beame of inspiration for another poem.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Must have done something right

Amongst all my efforts, my children stand as the work I am most proud of. Oh, I know it's not fashionable to celebrate our work as parents, but I think that's short sighted. So, today, I want to celebrate the latest child to make me proud, Sophie B, who is finishing her degree this year and has a lovely, lovely boyfriend and to cap it all, has a plan to go WWOOFing with him for the summer before getting a proper job/flat/debt/life or whatever the future has in store. This means they have applied to various smallholdings and farm to take them on for a week or two or a month to teach them about sustainability and being grownups in our deteriorating ecosystem. Hard to believe she was just a bouncy, noisy little scrap a few years ago. She's my inspiration...well, one of them, anyway!

Meanwhile, I have set myself a deadline to finish all my MA assignments - a bit of a long shot, admittedly, but if I get all my homework done, I will get my husband to come down from Devon for the second half of next week, and then take me home for a week! Could be nice, especially as no. 1 son is off skiing. So, back to poems. I seem to have ended up with a  lot of overblown nature poems, commonplace at best, because they aren't saying anything new. I like the jackdaws - but they are only 19 lines. I have created a little aide memoir to help me work out how many lines I have to write to go with my short story. 

That's 150 lines. I have a poem about Harvard referencing (but that's down to 25 lines after a bit of trimming), a buzzard poem that was fun to write but isn't very good and will end up at about 20 lines; a poem about a walk I took in November that is quite good and is 43 lines long (yay!), a cyberpunk cut up poem that no-one understands but I quite like but is only 16 lines. That's, um (adds up on fingers, gives up, uses calculator, gets 13240.88 as answer, laboriously counts of fingers again) 123 lines. Assuming they don't get edited further (which they will be) I'm short at least one poem. Which means I have to put the second wife one in which I like, it came out of the toolkit but how on earth is my tutor ever going to know that! 

While looking for my notes I did find a couple of short (very short) poems that I wrote along the way. 

Men are like string

Men are like string,
you spend ages untangling 
but they tangle back up in the drawer.
The string gets longer as they get older.
Some of the tangles have been there since childhood.
You can use your teeth on those. 

Some poems

Some poems are spaniels,
they attach themselves to you,
bound ahead, take landscape sticks
they roll and beg for hefty pats
and bark at passing cars.

Some poems are strays, spotted
in alleys, under cars, up trees,
part wolf, part mystery, part memory.
Sometimes a single paw print
left in melting snow.  


Friday, 21 January 2011

Chapter 7 going well

On a lighter note, I'm blazing away on the book, ramping up the tension and finishing chapter 7 with a  cliffhanger. I'm very pleased with myself, I've been working all day. This is because (I think) no-one has spoken to me all day, so my concentration has remained intact. I'm ridiculously easily derailed. Now the boys are home it will end, but I'm enjoying the story again and even know where it's going!

Running out of assignment

I carefully counted the lines/words for my assignments. The theories one was a bit big but just about within the 10% rule. The toolkit one was spot on, I thought, with drafts of six poems and a short story. That was before I started editing.

I took a poem about jackdaws and rooks gathering on the ridge opposite our house (which is an amazing sight and quite deafening) which started when I looked at St. Thomas Aquinas's ideas about beauty. So with my head full of galleries and art etc. I stepped out of the car and there was this amazing confluence of birds, like a loose swarm of bees, covering the trees along the ridge. I started to look at the 38 lines I had and read it out loud. This is how I edit:

  • I highlight bits I really like the sound of.
  • I mark up stresses where the rhythm is interesting.
  • I look at interesting ideas and look for words that describe them
  • I find odd words that just make their way in like translating it to another language and back again.
  • I read it out aloud again and again.
  • Sometimes I sing the words along to a song or make up a new tune.

The final product? A poem I like, that I'm happy with. (Happyish. Who is ever really finished with a  poem?) It's nineteen bloody lines. I'm going to be a long way short of my target at this rate. 

This is the present draft:

High on the hill; on the ridge, stands an oak
buffeted crabwise, leaning; the gathering tree.
The sorcerer's tree. Rusty with the first touch of frost,
leaves tattered by September gales, the winds signalling
the orchard daws and the graveyard daws.
The pair in our chimney begin scherzando cries,
approaching birds reply from the east. Inky rags
that drop to the river below, brush it with wingtip fingers,
reflected off skyward, on a thermal of boisterous song,
which tangles like threads in the sorcerer's tree.
As dozens and hundreds arrive they dislodge
the resident crows, who stretch for textures of flight;
the uplift that pins them to the darkening sky.
Rookeries empty in Mortehoe and Lee,
and gather in grey-faced assemblies to wait
and curve the old boughs of the sorcerer's oak.
Hundreds become thousands, air stiffened with calls.
Some invisible consensus unpegs a sheet of birds
and snatches it, chanting, to the Atlantic shore.  

It doesn't have a title yet and I'm already snip, snipping away at it. It will be a single line in no time.  




Wednesday, 19 January 2011

On a completely personal note

Today is the anniversary that we don't talk about publicly. Eight years ago a decent and loving man, who had very recently lost his wife in a horrific accident, took a huge leap of faith and started a relationship with me. To the almost universal censure of the community (there were some notable exceptions), we broke an unspoken rule about how long you have to grieve. Well, every December he grieves for Maya, just as I remember Steve in the summer. So today is my day for feeling grateful. He has become my best friend, the love of my life, and a great Dad to my children. I really don't do the mushy stuff (he does) and I rarely say it out loud. But eight years ago was one of those magical days...well, nights...when the prince finally turned up and it turned into a happy ever after. So, thank you, Bear. Happy Anniversary even if we are 166 miles apart.   

Chapter 7 and the invisible reader

It's been a productive day, though I was distracted when I ran out of teabags. I managed to knit chapters five and six onto the earlier bits and now have started chapter 7. I feel the need for less sitting around drinking tea and chatting and more action, so I might scrap today's words and rewrite as something bigger. The bad character is closing in, but I want to work on it. I wish I could just plan!

Thanks to recommendations I received from another blogger I picked up a copy of Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell, and the first thing I noticed is that it's a book that speaks to the female fiction writer, which really suits me. A lot of the time, books brimming with ideas are actually aimed at producing a male style of fiction that I neither write nor, very often read. So I recommend it if you are trying to write subtle, rich prose rather than a bodice ripper or a crime thriller. She also recommends Brian Kitely, and I look forward to exploring his writing exercises after my assignment bottleneck has passed.

One things I'm benefiting from at the moment is the input of fellow students who are willing to exchange work for editing/critiquing. I'm finding this incredibly helpful, and even if I (and they) don't agree with every suggestion (which is all they are) we are getting rare insights into how the reader receives the work. It's no good me thinking I'm come up with something really clever if the reader doesn't get it! I've always though that art, any art, is empty without the viewer. A picture on a wall is nothing, but when someone looks at it, it becomes something to that viewer. I think writing is like that, my ideas, my story acting itself out in my head, gets approximately and thinly translated into black and white marks on the screen or page, then someone else with a rich and varied imagination uses those words as a starting point to create their own story. If their story relates to mine, great. More importantly, does their story progress, is it satisfying for them? Ultimately, I write stories because I want to know what happens to the characters. Editing and rewriting gives me a chance to share that story with someone else, bringing it to life as a piece of fiction rather than an elaborate daydream. So, thank you ladies, I appreciate your help enormously.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Six chapters done!

Having put chapters together for my fiction class, and reviewed and rewritten them, I feel confident that the first six chapters are in a good second draft state and I'm back on course. So have updated my wordmeter to 16k. Chapter six still needs a bit of tying in but otherwise it flows, which was the problem before, when each seemed like a rather naff short story. So lots of progress made today and I can wander into town for lunch!

Having fun with front sheets

I have two assignments to do which have the simplest of briefs: hand in 4000 pieces of work inspired by the modules. I've decided that this gives me latitude to play with the front sheet a bit, instead of being strictly factual and sensible, I'm doing a graphic for each. One is the raven poem (see December 27 2010) and the other is a poem made up from the history of all the fabrics in a patchwork quilt and how a family's quilt might hold a lot of stories. I wrote it in little blocks and offset them so some are at right angles so they look like a quilt. I'm baffled as to how I can put that up here so it's legible, but I'm really pleased with how it looks!

And if you click on it, you can (sort of) read it. Our tutor also wants a bibliography and some sample drafts - which is a creative project in itself really. I'm enjoying playing with words again and more plot is downloading into my brain (mostly when I want to go to sleep, admittedly) so today, I'm working on the novel to the sound of the tumble drier. The boys are on 'outdoors courses' which means they have far more laundry than any normal human being! And for light relief, I can edit the poem, which is full of odd words and repetitions, I just wanted to get the word length right to start with.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Back to work.

After a really lovely solstice/Christmas/New year celebration I am finally installed, ahead of time, in Winchester. It's been a terrible wrench leaving home and I found myself wandering around, the day I packed, touching things I think of as completely home - the blue and white china I started collecting two decades ago, much of which is from charity shops, the bookshelves my husband built, the wooden box I bought when I moved to the Island in 1994. I have deliberately not brought favourite things from home, because home is Devon. This is my work place, so I'm supposed to be working. My commitment is to write 1000 words a day, because that's when I feel best about my writing, even if I'm also writing something else like an assignment. This counts, and so does my diary. So I very quickly rack up words anyway. With 4,000 words ready to go off for my fiction assignment (thanks to the very welcome help of a fellow student!) I am ready to start seriously editing the next thing, a collection of poems. The problem is, they all sound a bit similar in style, because I've been reading a lot of Erica Jong and Sharon Olds. I also want to write a sestina, but I've never tried. They seem so contrived when you look at them on the paper yet they sound so gorgeous. Since we're doing sestinas, villanelles and sonnets in A363 shortly, I thought I would work my way through that chapter and see if one of my long poems (which needs serious cutting) will work in a new format.

Otherwise, I'm quietly looking at the novel, not setting myself a huge workload, but pottering with new scenes rather than whole chapters. I need a new way of novelling, just taking a run up at it means the beginnings are full of ideas but I'm running out by the end. So my novels accelerate at the end and fall off into anticlimax. Although I had no fun at all writing the radio play for A363, I have found some of the screenplay writing stuff useful for writing cinematically, like a film. So I'm playing with that.

The assignment I have been most confident of, partly because I've got my head in the sand about it, is the 'creative toolkit' one. For this, I've put together a sequence of poems and a short story, but I've left these until last to work on. I'm going to print them off and stick them on the shelves so I can see them when I'm slacking relaxing after a hard days work. Meanwhile I'm putting a photo up of the silliest cat ever. She was sitting on the desk looking out at the birds and obviously got tired - and curled up like a snail.  Silly Saffy. Or as she is known in the family - (big breath) Teeny Tanley Fat Fluffly Saffy Doolins Bave. And when middle daughter was working at the vet's, she did try and get all that on the computer...I shall miss the cats too.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


Well, this is a blast from the past. Eldest child is working through her psychology essay's references, which I know how to do. I, on the other hand, have written a sequence of poems and prose about Greenham Common and have no idea whatsoever what to include or leave out of a bibliography. I've never even written a bibliography. So I'm trying to reference songs, newspaper archives, youtube, articles, books, poems, poets... I'm at a loss. Somehow I have to relate the work back to the theory it was sparked off by, a reading we were given about Helene Cixous, but we're not writing a commentary or rationale so how do we demonstrate the inky footprints back to the original theory? Worse, I've never written a prose-and-poem sequence of life writing before and I've got the Kafka piece to do as well. Lament over.

I'm about to head back to Winchester to start new modules on the MA. I have to fit in a critique of another student's writing in A363 which I have decided to do with my eyes shut, since it's 10% of the marks and my last assignment didn't score highly. I think my big end-of-module assignment will do well, and I have a short story to write for TMA05 so will enjoy getting on with that while I wait for university to start up again. I have also signed up for a poetry class, and that will be for fun, I can do all the reading and exercises (if I want) but can skip them if I'm busy which will leave me more time for the other stuff. I've also got all the children's books ready for Fantastic Fiction and am reading through bits of them, in preparation. I want to keep up with work so I can keep the assignment momentum up.

Reading through my psychology books, I have an interesting case study by 'The Troops of Truddi Chase', a strange phenomenon of a woman who dissociated into different persoanlities that excluded the original Truddi. While I'm not going to get into a debate about MPD (Multiple Personality disorder ICD10)  or DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder DSM-IV) I have long been fascinated by When Rabbit Howls, a rare book where the patient gets to explain their own experience. I would love to write a MPD character for a short story. She wrote very movingly about the agony of rediscovering the abuse that led to her dissociation (or delusion if you're sceptical) but either way, this was a disturbed and hurt character who found a way through trauma. So I'm taking it back to University for a bit of light reading when all the children's books get too spooky. I've just read Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan, which frankly, is a horror story. Written by Shan as if he were a child it follows the story of Darren Shan (confusing I know, try to keep up) as he is transformed into a vampire and has to leave his family to travel with a band of monsters. It's creepy and disturbing and one of my sons loved it, collected all 12 books. It's an astonishing work, and shows how diverse and creative children's writing has become. The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks) seems more likable and comfortable now. Varjak Paw (S. F. Said) was the same, gorgeous story but with a hard edge, not easy to make it realistic or believable when the narrator is a cat. Back to referencing... 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Assignments and publishing

Well, I'm pleased to say two of my assignments are sorted and the big ones are still not (why didn't I just write two short stories and be done with it! Some more sensible students ran them through the fiction workshop radar and can just tidy them up and hand them in. Meanwhile, I get bitten by the poetry bug...). Kafka's weird world view is becoming more clear to me and I feel I can do something on him now. I can't imagine doing an essay on any of the theory stuff, though. I do have another idea for a Freudian piece, stealing the therapy idea and taking it further as two poems.

Meanwhile, I've been through chapters one and two of 'Borrowed Time', my supernatural thriller, and am ready to reinvent chapters 3 and 4, which I edited a bit quickly for my fiction workshop and actually need to extend to make sense of subsequent chapters. I'm reading Kelley Armstrong again, which is helpful, as it has a supernatural world which is approached differently from each character's POV. I love 'Haunted', a book about a character who was a selfish, fairly ruthless and amoral person and has been dead three years. The story starts there, as her 'evil' qualities give her the edge in dealing with a supernatural baddie who even the angels haven't been able to rein in. She's bad, but likeable, and the dilemma is she may be able to protect her daughter but will have to give up her lover to do it. I've sketched out books 2 and 3 in the Borrowed Time series, I'll have time to get on with them after the MA. Apparently, publishers like to see authors working on more books, on the off chance their first book is moderately successful they will have a saleable product.

One thing I've found dispiriting about some of the other students on the MA, is that they aren't interested (so far) in the relationship between publishing and writing, as if their work will magically be discovered and be published. Writing for publication is all about producing a product and matching it to the people who want to sell it. Writing for oneself isn't so much of a problem. John Gardner said, write everything as if it is going to be published. Some are so perfectionist they can't let go of anything, it's never finished. Two students stand out though, they are already writing for the commercial market and they are both already publishing, one in a blog and one in short story websites. I'm looking forward to the publishing project module, hopefully this will awaken a few more students to the publishing world. Meanwhile, I have a few pieces to go off...and a few poems to try out.