Writing
ANNUAL REVIEW
Category: Writing
Tags: Writing goals planning taking stock

ANNUAL REVIEW

As we all race around, trying to finish projects at work or home as well as prepare for the festivities of the most important (at least for most of us…) holidays of the year, there is not much time or space for sitting back and relaxing. As of today, the final pre-Christmas week is upon us and panic sets in. It’s at this point that I begin looking forward to the days between the holidays, when the pressure of Christmas expectations has been lifted and I can kick back, read a bit, watch some good films and maybe even have enough leisure to reflect on the accomplishments – or lack of same – during the year just coming to a close.

                As writers, many of us are able to work at our own pace, not necessarily held to account by large corporations and their deadlines. Unless of course, you happen to be one of the lucky few among us who have climbed bestseller lists and do have to produce those manuscripts to a schedule. If so, congratulations on your success. You don’t need to read any more of this!

However, for one such as I, an apprentice writer eager to learn and develop my skills, taking the time to perform my own personal annual review, as happens in real, live day-jobs, is a worthwhile undertaking. How many stories did I write, revise or edit this past year? How many made it into print? Did I submit pieces to any contests or lit magazines? Which of the goals that I bravely set down for myself in January of this year actually came to fruition or are at least works-in-progress? Of course, this assumes I actually did some planning in the previous January.

                As luck would have it, a new January is just two weeks away, offering us a new opportunity to set goals, if we haven’t been doing this previously. It can only help if I, as a semi-professional wordsmith, set down on paper some targets at which to aim. This doesn’t have to be a solemn contract with myself – unless I want it to be. But a modicum of pressure can help concentrate the mind. Maybe it’s less intimidating to think of this goal-setting as a to-do list that will keep me busy and out of trouble all year. Another way of thinking of it is as a roadmap. Traveling is always easier if I know the direction I need to go and what I expect to find at the end of the journey.

                Merry Christmas to all and may the New Year bring many opportunities for you to show off your word prowess!

Early Words
Category: Writing
Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers first books

Following on from Sue’s excellent post last week about what inspired us to write, I decided to look at our first reading experiences. I’m guessing that we all learned to read – or were read to – before we learned to write? That was certainly my experience.

I owe my early love of books and reading to my mother, who was an avid reader herself. Every night, when I was tucked up in bed, she read me a story. That was one of my favourite moments of the day. Like all children, I especially liked the stories I already knew by heart and I would say the words out loud when she came to them. (‘“Pooh,” said Sir Guy of Gisbourne.’)

It’s too far back for me to remember the very early picture books. My earliest memories are of the Ladybird books. They were little hardback books, both fiction and non-fiction. All were written as an illustrated story. The ones I particularly remember are the classic fairy tales, the Crusades, Robin Hood, What to Look for in Winter and What to Look for in Summer.

I was delighted to learn that the Ladybird books are still published under the Penguin imprint. But they are no longer in their original format. The company was founded in 1867 by Henry Wills when he opened a bookshop in Loughborough. In 1914, the company first published its range of children’s books, using a ladybird logo. The first ladybird with open wings was replaced by the classic closed-wing Ladybird logo in the 1950s.

You can see some of the old-style covers on this website, which is dedicated to the Ladybird books. 

I graduated from those to a set of Newnes Encyclopaedias with red leather binding and gold-tooled lettering. My favourite volume contained the Greek, Roman and Norse myths, to which I returned time and again. And, joy of joy, I discovered dinosaurs, an abiding passion during my childhood.

From there, my tastes veered towards the supernatural. I loved the idea of a parallel world to ours, peopled by strange, and sometimes menacing beings. Books that greatly influenced me included:

  • The Borrowers, tiny people who lived in the wainscot and “borrowed” things like empty cotton reels to make stools;
  • The Forest of Boland Light Railway, by a mysterious “B.B.”, in which a community of elves living in a forest construct a railway line to transport them from their village to their silver mines; and
  • Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

I must have been a rather whimsical child, but oh to recapture that “land of lost content.”

What were your first reading experiences?    

 

The Prize is Right?
Category: Writing

When the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced as Anna Burns’ novel Milkman, my curiosity was aroused, not so much by the book, but by the comments of chief judge Kwame Anthony Appiah. He said that the book was a challenge, “but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging”. He added that Milkman is “enormously rewarding if you persist with it”.

My curiosity was satisfied by Allison Pearson’s excellent and very balanced Daily Telegraph article, which not only laid bare the body of this strange work, but also buried it.

Experimental novel Milkman is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles and narrated by an 18-year-old girl who finds herself pursued by a sinister, much older paramilitary figure, the Milkman of the title. Anna Burns writes in long paragraphs and there are no names. Instead, the narrator is known as “middle sister”, while other characters are “third brother-in-law” or “first brother-in-law” and a chirpy, car-obsessed “maybe-boyfriend”. Even the book’s title is a dark joke: the IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates to doors at the corner of every street.

Allison considers herself a rather good and passionate reader, but judges the novel as “undeniably hard work” and not exactly the kind booksellers expect to fly off the shelves. She also takes issue with Appiah’s comment of “enormously rewarding if you persist with it”, being of the firm opinion that you shouldn’t need to persist with a great book, you shouldn’t be able to put it down. I echo the comments of the last speaker.

So why did what sounds like a real clunker win one of literature’s richest prizes? When Booker McConnell established the award in 1969, it was open to British, Commonwealth and South African writers. In 2002, the Man investment group took over sponsorship and increased the prize from £21,000 to £50,000. Most controversially, in 2013, eligibility was broadened to any English-language novel. To quote Allison once more: “it wasn’t hard to foresee what would happen when the juggernaut of US creative writing was allowed to bear down on a Morris Minor”. Since then two Americans have won, and the longlist and shortlist are packed with US novelists. There were two excellent US novels on the 2018 shortlist, one the bookies’ favourite, but with a prize now fending off accusations of American dominance, neither could be adjudged the winner.

Allison: “Not only is Milkman not the best book on the shortlist, it’s not even the best book on the longlist where Warlight cast its spectral magic and Normal People told a love story that had critics swooning”.

The Booker Prize seems to have been racked with controversy from the beginning. Winner of the 1994 award, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late provoked a storm of criticism. Judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger declared it “a disgrace” and “crap”. WH Smith’s marketing manager condemned it as “an embarrassment to the whole book trade”. It’s one of a long line.

Judges are not simply the same old faces. Each year, an advisory committee is formed which includes a writer, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian, and a chairperson appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation. The committee selects the judges from amongst leading literary critics, writers, academics and important public figures. Rarely does any judge sit a second time. But many in the literary world cast serious doubts on the ability of a small number of insiders to choose a ‘best book’. The Guardian introduced the "Not the Booker Prize", voted for by readers, partly as a reaction to the system.

Literary prizes should be awarded to the best works. Period. We can do better.

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The Duke's Shadow
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Foreign & Far Away
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Break Out
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