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Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective ProseSin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always remember a piece of advice in Stephen King's ON WRITING, which I read a good few years ago: King recommends that writers get themselves a "writer's toolbox" of skillsets, reference books etc. that they can fall back on and use to enhance their trade.

Ever since, I've been keeping an eye out for really good guides to the nitty-gritties of writing: namely, spelling, punctuation and grammar. SIN AND SYNTAX may well be one of the best of those guides.

The first and foremost thing about this book is that it's an entertaining read. No dry, academic textbook stuff here (and believe me, I've read my share of them). Hale is a witty and involving author, and she makes a potentially unengaging/uninteresting subject positively zing at times.

The book is split into short, manageable chunks that make reading - and learning - a breeze. Language is brought to life in all of its wondrous forms, with equal prominence given to Shakespeare and modern-day rap lyrics. You'll learn a lot from reading it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Seasonal Inspirations

Now that the equinox has been and gone and winter is but a distant memory - try telling that to my dogs, who were shivering in the cold air this morning - it looks like spring is finally upon us. It's been a long wait, as always, but a worthwhile one too. Early spring is one of my favourite times of year as a writer.

Does anything point the way towards spring better than snowdrops emerging from a litter of last year's dead leaves?

In terms of the seasons, winter is by far my least favourite. It's the best time of the year for celebrations, but in every other respect, winter is the dead season. It's a period when merely being outdoors is unpleasant, and time outside is spent in hurrying to the next indoor vantage point. As somebody who loves being outdoors, it's a tough few months.

Spring is another matter entirely. Colour is all around us, emerging from flower beds and hedgerows. The birds and the beasts seem genuinely happy with the warmer temperatures, judging by the constant birdsong outside my window. Better still, things are only going to get better with summer and autumn (two more seasons I love) coming up. This is a time of expectation and lifted spirits.

What does spring mean for writers? For me, it's a time of year to be thinking about new projects, planning ahead for the long and hopefully dry summer. Personally, I have copious notes for a new book I'm in the process of planning, a project that will no doubt occupy plenty of my creative time this year.

Inspirations are all around us. I get most of my inspirations by taking long walks through the countryside, and there isn't a better time to be doing so. The warmer temperatures, clear skies, and blooms and buds of nature around us can't fail to engage the senses. It's the time of year when I start carrying my camera around again as a matter of habit, never knowing what beauty I might spy next.

It's a time when you can't help but feel good to be alive...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Trumpington Cross: a grave discovery

This week, the newspapers have been reporting a story about the archaeological discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial site in a village near Cambridge. The grave, which dates from the mid 7th century, contains the body of a 16 year old woman lying on a bed of which only the fittings now remain.

A story interesting enough in itself, you might think, but what makes this doubly newsworthy is that the woman was buried with a solid gold cross at her neck. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans when they first arrived on our shores, and the spread of Christianity among them was a gradual process, so this find helps historians to date their knowledge more accurately.

Incidentally, the above facts led to a typical howler from the unreliable Yahoo! News team, who reported on the discovery of one of ‘Britain’s first Christians’, totally ignoring the early Celtic church, the Irish missionaries and their work, and even that the Romans themselves were Christianised before they left Britain centuries prior to the date of this burial!

The University of Cambridge website features a lengthy description of the excavation, along with a slideshow of related images and a video of experts discussing the finds. Michelle Ziegler’s excellent blog, Heavenfield, also explores the implications.

Once again, I’m struck by the exquisite detail of Anglo-Saxon jewellery; the cross itself is a thing of beauty. These may have been the Dark Ages, but not when it came to such intricate art and craftwork. The notion of a Saxon bed burial – described by researchers as ‘very rare’ and ‘extraordinary’ – is also a new one on me.

This find also paints an evocative picture: a young woman, possibly an early convert to Christianity in a pagan society, living close to the river Cam on the contested frontier land between Mercia and East Anglia. Was she a princess, a woman of power and status? Or perhaps a nun, living in a small commune with her fellow sisters? Was she struck down by the plague in the prime of her life?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but I hope the archaeologists are able to share more key details with us once they’ve completed their tests.


BBC News, Daily Mail

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eavesdropping as a tool for writers

“Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee. Have you been eavesdropping?”

“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves sir, honest. I was just cutting the grass under the window there, if you’ll follow me.”

- from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Eavesdropping is a dirty word these days. Think of it and you think of the Leveson Inquiry, dodgy tabloid journos and phone hacking. The mere act of listening in on somebody’s private conversation is taboo, a form of theft. Yet eavesdropping is one of those tools that can provide a wealth of inspiration for writers in the right circumstances.

The term ‘eavesdropper’ originated in the mid 15th century to mean “one who stands at walls or windows to overhear what’s going on inside” (thanks, Online Etymology Dictionary). I’ve heard tell that in the old days it used to be a criminal offence to listen to somebody else’s conversation. But writers who resolutely refuse to do so are missing out.

Put simply, eavesdropping is a great source of external inspiration.

Writing is an all too often solitary job, and for all writers the ideas sometimes stop flowing. It goes with the territory. And sometimes the best thing to do is to get a breath of fresh air, grab a cup of coffee and sit down in a busy café, listening to the words filling the air around you.

I’ll admit that I’d never considered using eavesdropping as a source of inspiration until I was required to do so for my writing course. So, with notepad and pen in hand, I visited my local town on a market day to give it a go. Once you’ve gathered the courage to break a social etiquette, it actually turns out to be quite easy.

Initially I tried eavesdropping on people who were walking as they talked. Big mistake: listening, following without being noticeable and scribbling notes are three things that just won’t combine. Next, I lurked in a doorway while listening to a couple of guys chatting outside a tailor’s, and that worked better. The trick is to look inconspicuous; pretending to text or talk on your mobile phone works a treat, or bring a book you can pretend to be reading.

The best territory, though, is when you find somewhere you can sit down and have a reason to be; a pub or café is perfect. It’s perfectly normal for a writer to grab a drink and make notes at their table, so nobody suspects a thing. Pretty soon, I’d jotted down enough of a conversation to complete my assignment, and a few weeks later I’d transformed that conversation into a short story that I felt pleased with.

If you’re really unhappy about going out and having a listen, there are alternatives. The Eavesdrop Writer Blog, based in America, has transcripts of all kinds of overheard conversations and is well worth a look. And – forgive me for saying so – reality television can sometimes offer you a way to listen in to strangers chatting from the comfort of your own home.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Book review - THE WHALE ROAD by Robert Low

The Whale Road (Oathsworn, #1)The Whale Road by Robert Low

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE WHALE ROAD is the first in a series by Robert Low concerning the adventures of Orm and the Oathsworn, a band of vicious Vikings whose journeys take them all around the world.

The first thing you notice about this story is the level of violence. It makes Bernard Cornwell's writing look positively tame in comparison. There's death, destruction and hand-to-hand combat on every page, with an emphasis on the visual and visceral. There's also an incredibly high body count, the highest I've ever encountered in a book, and you start wondering whether anybody will make it out alive come the end.

The plotting and backstory isn't as important to Low as living in the moment, detailing a life set in miserable, cold surroundings punctuated by moments of extreme violence. The essence of the adventure is a hunt for the treasure of Attila the Hun, but at times it feels like a Macguffin, designed to keep the characters ever-moving.

There are flaws, particularly early on. The opening chapter is muddled, introducing a large cast while at the same time portraying some back story involving a fight with a polar bear. This makes for very confusing reading, but thankfully the rest of the story takes place in the present. The supporting cast is filled with larger than life characters, although the best is Hild, the sole female in the book who casts a long shadow over all the rest.

At its best, the story reminded me of Herzog's AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, depicting a dwindling group of survivors seeking out their doom, with the presence of death ever near. Low's writing is excellent when it comes to describing action, and a rooftop chase is a particular highlight. Now my appetite has been whetted, I'll be on the lookout for the follow up, THE WOLF SEA.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Monday, March 05, 2012

A Horse's Grave in the Wood

Sue and I discovered this unusual monument a few years ago, while out walking in Morkery Wood near Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire. Back then, information on the obelisk was scarce, and the only mention of it I could find was a hesitant guess that it was some kind of ordnance marker to do with the army stationed here during WW2. Since then, the full story has come to light.

It turns out that the monument was erected by General Henry Grosvenor, one-time master of the Cottesmore Hunt, who lived at nearby Stocken Hall in Stretton some two hundred years ago. Grosvenor was a well-known figure who ran his own stud farm at the hall, providing the Duke of Wellington with his famous horse Copenhagen.

The story goes that Grosvenor’s favourite horse, one ‘Black Butcher’, died on the spot beneath his owner during a hunt. Grosvenor then erected the gravestone to commemorate a much-valued steed.

Seen today, the memorial is much eroded, although the image of the horse on the front remains striking. A poem on the reverse has been totally obliterated. The unknown stonemason chose soft ashlar stone for the carving and inscription, but his choice has fared badly with our country’s changeable weather. However, the Rutland Online website has provided a full transcription of the tribute:

“Within old Morcary Wood you hear the sound

Of Lowther's voice encouraging the hounds.

Pass ye not heedless by this pile of stones

For underneath lie honest Butcher's bones.

Black was his colour yet [his] nature fair,

Where ere the hounds went Butcher would be there

'Tis graven to be a tribute to his worth,

Better hunter ne'er stretched leathern girth.”

Grosvenor seems to have held his animals in high regard; a former resident of Stocken Hall Farm noted the prevalence of dogs’ gravestones near the hall itself. Incidentally, a portrait of Butcher, painted by famed equine artist John Ferneley, now hangs in Grimsthorpe Castle near Bourne, Lincolnshire.

As Morkery Wood is today the favoured haunt of dog walkers and cyclists, discovering this lonely grave was a surprise. It feels somehow incongruous. The grave is set back from one of the main pathways in the ancient woodland and easy to miss in the summer months, when it’s hidden in the undergrowth. There’s a subdued and solemn atmosphere to this forlorn spot, and it’s no surprise that the soldiers once stationed here supposed the grave to be haunted, presumably by the hulking, fleet-footed spectre of Butcher himself.






Thursday, March 01, 2012

Writing Collaboratively: how it works for us

I recently read an interview with popular thriller writer Nicci French - actually husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French - that revealed their process of collaboration:

“They tend to write alternate chapters and email them back and forth for each other to revise until both feel satisfied; friends try and guess whose bits are whose and don’t always get it right. They spend months talking about each book before they start, yet cannot imagine actually writing in each other’s presence.”

This insight heartened me, because it’s very similar to how Sue and I work together in our own writing. We first started working together on the same manuscript five years ago, when Sue’s illness meant she could no longer sustain writing alone. Since then, we haven’t looked back.

For us, writing collaboratively doesn’t mean a painstaking process of discussing every sentence before one of us jots it down. I don’t know if anyone could ever write like that; you’d get on each other’s nerves before you finished a single paragraph, and it would take you ages to actually get anywhere. Writing is still a solitary practice, even when you’re working with somebody else.

When we come to starting a new book, Sue and I spend months together plotting, bouncing ideas off each other and developing characters and their back stories. Once all the details are finished, I write out the chapters, one by one, in initial draft form. These are then emailed to Sue, who edits until she’s satisfied, before sending them back to me. I then craft a second, more polished draft.

Working this way gives each of us our own space and allows us both to contribute to the creativity of our stories. We’ve completed four manuscripts so far, and are well into the plotting stage of our fifth, so I can say without a doubt that it definitely works for us.

Would you write together with your nearest and dearest? Would it be a case of harmony and unison, or daggers at dawn?