Public Reading

Life has been a veritable whirlwind of challenges and new experiences, many a result of starting a Masters degree in Creative Writing this September, others, just life. Hopefully I’ll get the time to write about these in more detail, but I wanted* to come on and write about my first experience with reading my work in public, which I did on Monday.

I have read in public once before, at a small, informal event organised at my writing group leader, held at her house with drinks and a party like vibe. Monday was not a much larger gathering, organised by a local author, for other local writers to showcase their work (and for the self-published authors, make some sales!). It was far more terrifying than I had anticipated, and I did burst into tears as soon as I got home***, but overall, I believe that it went well (at least, that’s what I’ve been told!).

These are some of the lessons I’ll be taking from it:

  1. Practice your piece (aloud!) in advance.

    Due to last minute tweaking, university commitments family interruptions and traffic, I was unable to do a final read-through  on the day of the reading. I’d read it aloud in advance, but sat at my computer a few days before. I lip read it on the train home to check timings, I did not stand in front of a mirror in the privacy of my own home doing a dry run. Doing so would definitely have left me more confident when it came to the public event.

  2. Keep it simple.

    The best pieces read (in my mind) were linear and from a single viewpoint. First person worked well. My piece was fairly complex, and took a lot of cutting to get it within the time allocation (more on this in a minute!). It switched between two locations, indicated by scene breaks on the page, but less clear to listeners (it’s not good writing practice in general, but a few insertions of “meanwhile, over in…” may have helped). The story was located in Zambia, and I had meant to use a few gentle accents, but as I’m terrible at accents in general****, in the sheer panic of the night I forwent most of them and just ploughed through the piece. Maybe a few extra dialogue tags would have helped clarify the character interactions. I had also included a lot of medical/scientific terminology. My Science background took over, so I was fine with pronunciation, but it’s definitely an issue to bear in mind if inserting technobabble!

  3. Stay within the time frame.

    One of the positives of the night was knowing my piece finished just within the allocated time-slot. I kept the introduction short (I had pre-planned what to say), but I didn’t have to worry about evil looks from the organiser***** or pointed tapping of watches.

  4. Wear layers.

    I was fine in the café, until I stood up to read. Then my blood pressure soared and I was very aware of beetroot cheeks and sweating! Having something I could take off might have helped me feel less self-conscious. (removing my wool dress would not have helped me feel less conspicuous!!). On a similar note, staying comfortable in general removes pressures, so pop to the loo before and make sure you have a glass of water to hand.

  5. Look up!

    Even if you’re nervous, looking up at the audience makes for a much better connection and helps people enjoy the pieces better. It also projects a calmer image than may be the case.I glanced up about 3 times in the piece, even though I knew I should have been doing so more. A writer friend who was there recommended marking points in the text to look up, which is something I’ll definitely be doing next time.

So overall…terrifying, but definitely a good learning experience! Plus it can’t have gone that badly, because I’ve volunteered to do it again, and the organiser didn’t run away screaming. All positive! 😀

 

*aka. use some gained time from a cancelled lecture**

**Or really, procrastinate on the reading I should be doing.

***I think it took that long for the adrenaline to wear off!

**** My husband had mocked me earlier that everyone might think it was set in Romania. He had a fair point!

*****She’s a very lovely lady, so these would probably have been mostly in my head.

A Brief Update…

I’m torn. Part of me feels guilty that it’s been so long, but the other part of me is trying to be a realist and remember exactly how hectic life has been recently. That I’ve passed out before 9pm every night this week (often before the kids have) is tribute to how exhausting things have been.

I forget exactly where I was the last time I blogged*, but this is where I am now:

  • The first draft of my second novel is complete, rested (a little) and now being worked on. I burned out a bit at the end, so spend a couple of much needed weeks off playing Fallout (3…sadly I’m not flush enough with cash or time to justify updating our PS3 yet). I was reluctant to get back into it, but made myself tart up a chapter to take to my writing group, and not only was it well received but seeing the prose tidied up gave me hope again for the story as a hole, so I grabbed at the momentum and have been working on it since.

 

  • I’m going against the advice to print and read the whole thing in one go. I tried it last time, and found I got overwhelmed by the pages of scrawl and notes everywhere. Because I know a lot of the issues that are in the first draft I’m doing a brief read-edit to get the whole a bit tidier before I do the Big Read. Hopefully it will help me get a better overview with fewer things to niggle over.

 

  • I’ve mentioned before that I like to use a spreadsheet to log my wordcount. I’ve found that logging my editing days and notes is just as motivational. It lets me see how well I’ve actually done when I’m on a good run. I’m focusing on time spent, change in wordcount (goes up and down depending on what scenes I’m working on need), notes on revision tasks undertaken, and general notes (usually along the lines of “Urrrgh, so tired…”).

 

  • I’ve been working on a couple of short stories-one horror, one children’s picture book (diversifying much?!). Both started well then stalled for different reasons. I’m hoping to dip back into them when I get a bit of inspiration or I need a break from novel revisions.

 

  • I’ve been reading more. Largely because I got to actually have some holiday during my recent holiday, and I remembered how lovely it is to read a book properly instead of in 1-2 line chunks before someone interrupts me, so I’ve been making more of an effort to get those longer lengths of time (although that’s largely come at the expense of writing time, so I’m not sure how sustainable it will be. Hopefully as the kids get bigger and life gets a little calmer…hahaha!)

 

  • I’ve been outlining(!!!) my next novel. This was partly something I’d intended to do, then used to procrastinate starting revisions! As it is I’m enjoying dipping in, partly because it’s my Big One that I devised the concept for before I’d even started writing my first novel (it was initially going to be a board game, but it turns out board game design is HARD! Who’d have thought it, huh?!), so it’s already been stewing a while, and I’m happy to let it grow. The most productive parts have been writing short character pieces and scenes in the world, rather than trying to force a plot (I tried this and have scrapped most of what I came up with because it felt so…forced!)

So that’s pretty much me for now. I’ll try to make more effort to update, and who knows, even talk about non-writing things!

 

*I could (and maybe should) check, but I promised myself this would be quick else I would have argued myself out of logging on!

2015: Books That Have Stuck With Me This Year

This year has flown by (don’t they all?), and thinking back to my life at the start of the year, it’s amazing how much has changed and grown in my life, in particular with kids and writing (unsurprising, given that those are about all that goes on I’m my life bar work and sleep. Although odd gaming sessions are reappearing, so I shouldn’t complain…maybe it’s time to reactivate my other blog on gaming with kids…hmmm…).

But this post isn’t really about that. Listening to Pub Talk TV’s latest episode on revision there was a comment that struck a chord. It was along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing here) “worthwhile stories are the ones that stick with you,” and it’s something I believe in strongly, both in terms of projects that haunt you to be written, and also books to recommend and re-read.

I do spend more time than I should re-reading old favourites, but I’ve realised that this has held me back on keeping up with the latest literary trends. So this year I’ve made more of an effort to branch out into new books, although given that I’m also economising (nursery fees are still crippling until my eldest starts school), I’ve been ransacking my local library service as my first port of call. This has lead to a somewhat eclectic mix of reading material, especially as some take a while to come through the reservation system.

So, from a range of genres and decades, these are the books I’ve read for the first time in 2015 that have stuck with me:

1. I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson

I got this because of the hype around it, but actually put off reading it when I got it from the library because I wasn’t in the mood for that romancy-type stuff. Then I became poorly and needed something my poor frazzled brain could cope with.

And slapped myself for my arrogance.

This book is stunningly written, both in terms of vibrant voices and emotional intensity. I have less artistic skill than a monkey smearing its faeces on a wall, yet even I was seeing in colours and looking up painters and sculptures and seeing them with new eyes.

It’s one of those books that you read as a writer and weep with both promise and despair, because to turn a phrase like that…

2. The Martian, by Andy Weir

I’d heard this described on Writing Excuses  as “Robinson Crusoe in space”, and it immediately shot onto my tbr list. Then the film came out and I managed to pick it up in the supermarket (alongside Peppa Pig’s Halloween Party and That’s Not My Bear. Neither of those quite making the list, sadly).

This book is brilliant. I ploughed through it, and now my husband is doing the same. The combination of science and wit is so engaging, although I would have liked a teensy bit more biology (the guy’s meant to be a botanist after all!), but his technical knowledge is (as far as I can tell) bang on. The tension throughout is beautifully played, as are the characters.

3. Dawn (Book 1 in the Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood Trilogy) by Octavia E. Butler

I tweeted about this book when I got it out. It’s technically one that I read many years ago (during uni finals, had to return book to the library then promptly forgot the name!), but I think it still deserves a place in this list because it stuck with me for over 10 years, until I finally worked out the author’s name.

Lilith is a strong lead character to fights all through the book, both physically and mentally, and I love her the more for it. Despite it being an older book, I love that the scientific and social issues are still relevant (well, not so good that the social issues are, but you know what I mean!), and the world-building is stunning.

4. A Slip of the Keyboard, by Terry Pratchett

2015 was the sad year that lost us this great man, but reading this book was utterly enlightening, entertaining and often reassuring that there’s hope for all of us.

Although not a writing book, it includes many honest and humorous insights into the writing life, including the drudgery of book tours and the procrastination involved in actually writing the books in the first place. There are also articles, letters and speeches on a range of topics from nuclear power to dementia to the plight of the orang-utan, which caused some issues in writing because nearly every page I was pausing to write down another story idea his imagination had sparked in mine.

5. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I’ve heard a lot of praise for this book, so it’s unsurprising that it’s made this list.

There were elements that disappointed me slightly (the “twist” at the end, if it’s meant to be such, felt a little obvious, and some of the dialogue and description felt a little heavy on the racial stereotypes, although that could be symptomatic of the age in which it was written, or just my personal taste). But these are quibbles against an excellent storyline exploring the issues of childhood pressure, bullying, manipulation of political ideas, and the attributes needed for high level military command.

Plus it’s all based around computer games. Awesomeness!

6. Mockingbird, by Chuck Wendig

This is actually the second in the trilogy but it’s the one my library had in stock so I started there (and will go back to book one when I’ve finally cleared my backlog of “to be read” books staring at me accusingly from the corner!).

I love Chuck Wendig’s blog, so it’s not surprising that I also loved the voice that comes through in his books. It’s violent and crude and poetic. Miriam Black is another strong female, this time with an awesomely terrible superpower. The book is uncompromising with it’s violence and the only downside it that it seriously affected my sleep because I couldn’t put it down until I got to the end.

7. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

This is a bit of a bonus one as I haven’t actually finished it. Another book that I’ve heard widely hyped, it’s not got quite the level of voice that I’ll Give You The Sun (I’m clumping them together as YA, possibly unfairly), but the mix of science and story is very clever, and made me realise it’s the direction I want to be taking my own writing in more. Plus, after being a little sceptical about the whole fairy tale plotline, I’m now excitedly spotting the references and trying to work out how the climax is going to play off.

 

So those are the novels that stuck with me this year. There may be others (the ever present sleep deprivation excuse), but these are all books that I both enjoyed and recommend, and that left me with an urge to read more by the authors, and/or a feeling of something worth holding to. There have also been a number of short stories (as I’m starting to dabble more there), but I may save those for a separate post.

In the meantime I’d love to know what books other people have read that have made an impact on them this year, especially any new releases.

 

Stephen King: On Writing

Whilst I enjoy it from time to time, non-fiction is rarely top of my reading list. Add that life and work have (rudely!) sapped my energy and free time to virtually nil of late, and you can see why I’ve not got very far through the long list of craft books I’ve bookmarked to look at.

Blogs, yes.

Podcasts, yes.

Writing books…

soon…

Honest!

However after finishing Stephen King: On Writing*, I think I need to put a higher priority on craft books.

Whilst a (self-acclaimed) short book, I enjoyed the gentle warm up with his personal history and route into his writing career. The guy can tell a story** and it’s always reassuring to hear how other people have slogged through the early days, refining their craft and getting exposure in between work and family life, before getting those breaks that build up to a successful career.

His section on writing advice is quite compact, which I liked, though will probably need to go back through to refresh , because the narrative on them is so stark.***

Some of my favourite parts/top lessons:

  • The image of his “muse” as a grumpy old man in the basement. Fab!
  • The importance of support from family (his wife in particular) and the freedom to disassociate with those that don’t.
  • A licence to spend time reading and writing, and to see oneself as a serious writer, rather than having to make excuses for it.

Some things I disagree***** with:

  • Writing groups are not always bad. I’ve found contact with other writers gives me confidence to treat my writing seriously. It gives me a time to focus solely on writing, without children, laundry, etc nagging in the back (or front!) of my mind. I can see how they can be misused, but with care I think they can be invaluable.
  • Plot can still be important. Yes, character and situation should come first, but a good plot that evolves from those things can draw me through a book. If people start with plot and work backwards to fill in the characters I think it can still work well, as long as the plot isn’t too rigid that it makes the characters flat or unbelievable.
  • A basic sense of grammar is important, but telling a good story still comes first. Now I have been put off reading indie pieces because of poor grammar, but getting every who vs. whom etc is going to annoy fewer people than unbelievable characters or bland story.

Hopefully I’m doing the book justice with these short points (we’re back on mad sleep patterns and my brain has given up on me recently), but they are just a few of the things that have stuck with me.

I may be slightly biased with how much resonated with me. I’m more of a discovery writer than outliner (he discards plans as sucking the life out of stories****, although I feel that’s a bit harsh and often wish I could plan, but I just end up writing instead), so his methods ring truer to me than they may to a hard-core planner. Even so, I think there’s something to be taken for everyone, so would highly recommend it.

If nothing else, it’s a quick, compelling read!

On Writing by Stephen King

*Not that the sample quite does justice to the rest of the book, imo.

**Well, duh! I have really enjoyed some of his fiction, although have to be in the right mood for it when it gets scary! Any hard-core fans would probably love it, because there are lots of references to the writing of specific books.

***Kicking myself a bit for getting the e-book, as print copies are so much easier to skim through for this.

****Paraphrasing, btw.

*****Please let me know if I’ve misinterpreted/misrepresented any of these ideas-as I’ve said I’m not quite on top par at the moment!

The Library: A Place of Quiet Introspection and Toddler Rampages…

It’s been a hurly-burly whirlwind of emotions again this month, with my return to work looming near.*

Baby boy has settled into nursery in good time** but it means the nursery fee rise coincided with the end of my (not-that-impressive) SMP (Statutory Maternity Pay). There’s a loooong, expensive month looming ahead before payday…

So I’ve been especially grateful for the fantastic resource that is my local library. Not only is it a source of books that I’d otherwise have to boycott until we’re solvent again, but it’s also a lovely free morning out with the kiddies (providing I can avoid getting lured into the “lolly shop” by my 3yo…)

Aside from which, I do love libraries.

Being the nerdy, bookish sort my fondest memories include childhood library visits and bedtime stories, so it’s been a mild source of anguish that my eldest has shown only limited interest in sitting still to read a book with me. “Quiet mother!” her look would say, “Let me focus on getting these things off the shelf so I can climb it..” Particularly painful as her best friend happily spends entire afternoons reading with his mummy.

Don’t get me wrong. She enjoys books for their own sake: turning the pages, tearing them out, ruthless editing with a wax crayon… Apparently she would sit in the corner with a book at nursery and laugh hysterically at the pictures (history of mental instability…us…?). And she likes stories. On the mooter. (aka, computer…). It’s all in there, but always behind whatever physical development needs working on next: crawling, standing, climbing, running… Talking and listening have taken a back step at every developmental leap.

But now her speech has caught up we can have proper conversations, and books are emerging in our daily life as I’d hoped they would. Library visits feel like so much more than a token effort now. So whilst my 10 month old empties the troughs of baby books  she carefully selects the books she wants to read (usually something totally inappropriate from the MG section that happens to have a picture of a fairy on the front, but no pictures inside. Fortunately she can “share” the ones picked out for her brother.) As I suspected, she’s often happier reading for herself, or to her brother, than she is passively listening. Which is probably a good thing.

Another bonus of the library is that they have a thoughtful “for adults” shelf in the children’s section, although I’ve yet to get around to exploring it thoroughly as I’ve been side-tracked by the rather good children’s books that have come out since I last looked for myself.

So now my biggest dilemma is whether to start cooking dinner, or make the most of the afternoon sunshine with a cup of tea and the rather compelling Dodger by Terry Pratchett. The latter would probably be the most responsible…after all, I have books on reservation to pick up when I’ve made room on my library card…

* I’ve officially started this week, but as it’s the holidays I’m pretending it’s not really real yet.

**After being traumatised by the minimal induction my lg had before my first day back it seemed best for everyone. I’m still so bad at leaving them that my husband still does the drop offs when I’m at home.

Terry Pratchett. Magical to The End.

Life has been a chaotic swirl of late, but I stopped still earlier at the devastating news that one of my (if not the) most loved and revered authors has passed away.

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett books at 16, and since then have read and reread much of his collection as I can (I must admit to shameful gaps with his more recent works, with life taking over and slowing down my reading rate).

He is one of the authors most prevalent in my day to day consciousness, with turns of phrase and images popping up repeatedly. I only need to walk past a cabbage in the shop to think of the Sto Plains and their wonderous brassica output.

Only a few days ago I referenced him in a comment about character development. If I need cheering up with something funny and light I’ll turn to one of his novels. If I want something darker, or clever to make me think, it’s there too. Fantasy, characters, science, puns, folklore…it’s there. Reading his work leaves my in awe (and at times a touch jelous), although I try to look at his progression from his earliest novels as promise that the rest of might grow similarly, albeit from a lesser starting point.

Watching the Neil Gaiman talk on Douglas Adams last week, I had already been thinking about him. Gaiman calls Adam a genius, for his insight and explanation of the world as is, and as will be. I think Sir Terry showed the same understanding; of words, of our world. But whilst Douglas Adams saw and solved the ultimate questions of the wider universe, Terry Pratchett understood our souls. From the painstaking letters of the conscientious Captain Carrot, to Nanny Oggs gleeful obscenities, these characters are the people around us. They are real, and everyone has their own favourites. My mum adores the witches; my husband, the eternal pessimism of Commander Vimes. I have a soft spot for the Granny Weatherwax and the wizards. I know of no one else who could make Death a loveable grandfather and owner of a horse named Binky, doing the conga whilst maintaining his sinister purpose.

His worlds are unique and immersive. His wordplay shamelessly brilliant.

We knew it was coming; the news off his illness has been around long enough that it seemed to fade into myth. He was still writing, still around, the world was still right, still a safe place. But now, suddenly, there’s a little hole in it, the shape of a turtle of unknown gender, carried on the back of four elephants. The man is gone, but the legend will remain. With eyes like Gimlet’s (the one that owns the dwarf delicatessen), I say let’s raise our glasses, don our Wizzard hats and jump on the table to sing the Hedgehog song at full volume.