SHIBBOLETH

My daughter just opened an amusing can of worms for me. Possibly even a box of frogs. Nay, a bag of spanners or even maybe nails.

What is this hate filled container of vitriolic differences?

How many spaces to put between sentences.

I know. A minefield of typographic horror.

So which is it people? One or two spaces? Let’s not trammel with the insanity of none or more – that way madness lies.

I grew up with one way – I’m not going to tell you which just yet, you can sweat a little. Let’s just tease you for a second or two and say that my age has something to do with my initial preference but that is not the end of the matter.

I laboured under this misapprehension of spatial insertion orthodoxy for years until I read the MHRA style guide, as you do. Okay it wasn’t a light recreational reading choice I confess, it was for my Masters. And there it was, the awful truth that I had been doing it wrong all these years. And I shall now reveal the answer to the question I posed…

It is one.

Apparently it was the manual typewriter that introduced the heinous aberration of  double space between sentences into the world of typography. I’m not going to labour the point about monospaced font – manual typewriters usually, versus proportional fonts, computers and trad typesetting. You can go and search for it online, trust me it is there in all its glory. The reason I learned to put two spaces was because of the mechanical and typographic idiosyncracies of the typewriter. The demise of that  beast and monospaced type meant the the return of the single pace, which real typesetters had never abandoned. Apparently.

 

So if it is one space now we have done away with the temporary glitch of manual typewriters sticking the extra space in to counter their abysmal fonts, why did my daughter spark such a trail of devastation throughout the Farrish household?

Because despite the change back, yes single space was the accepted norm before manual typewriting apparently, to single spacing between sentences, her academic writing guide suggests, possibly more than suggests, double spacing!

Hence my sudden trawl through the backwaters of typographer hell. They are quite vehement in their condemnation of the double space on the whole. Not merely suggesting it is preferable to use a single space but utterly consigning to the outer darkness those who would toy with the wasteful concept of double spacing between sentences.

So MHRA, typographers of the world and space savers everywhere or her University style guide?

(Sorry, no prizes if you got the question right, and I suspect no thanks from my daughter if you would like to suggest which route she should choose. Currently I believe she hates everyone associated with typographic rulings. Keep your heads down!)

A STAB IN THE DARK

I did something weird today. Don’t worry it’s not illegal, immoral or in poor taste (you could argue the last point I suppose). In my defence earlier in the day I had been to a meeting about my son’s schooling with members of the local authority etc etc. It went well but I’m always left feeling a little energised by them.

So when I got home and started doing the ‘normal’ writery things, I suddenly had an urge to return to the days when my online writing was new. So I typed ‘writing blogs’ into the search engine and had a look at what came up.

As I did it I had a feeling that my lack of clarity plus the idiosyncrasies of search algorithms may not produce what I was looking for. Then I realised I didn’t really have an idea of what I was looking for anyway. The whole thing was a whim. Did I want blogs about writing? Did I want advice about how to write a blog about anything? Did anyone bother about advice on blogs anymore? I am told, by whom it is not clear but the comments are everywhere, that the blog is going the way of the online forum, pushed out by shorter, faster, more vapid means of social media. So was I going to get anything?

I did.

What I remain amazed at is the way the internet proliferates layers of obfuscation help over any subject. We’ve generally moved away from the advertising that takes the Google search term you entered and offers to sell it to you right here right now. It used to be unnerving to be offered Stalin or Hitler for sale, although I was never tempted to follow up so I cannot say how accurate these offers were. But we still retain the aggregation sites that collect your search term and do another search on their own system and try and get you to click on it to follow up, presumably to monetise a click through system for their efforts. They aren’t as prevalent as they once were, but I did hit a few with my search. Far more prevalent is a (slightly) more sophisticated version which offers you the ‘Best 10/12/25/50/100 writing blogs on the web’. There are also lots of self publishing houses trying to get you to cough up cash to see your book in print. If that’s the aim carry on, but it’s largely vanity publishing and the problem with that is the marketing and how much it is going to cost to see your name on a spine. If you want a book on a shelf with your name on it that’s fine, but otherwise you are going to end up out of pocket, with one book on the shelf and a few hundred in the attic/garage/spare room.

The on demand publishers miss out the ‘where to store the damn things’ problem, but aren’t likely to shift a lot more. Online publishing is okay and I have done it quite profitably myself. It takes a lot of time and effort in the self publicising stakes. If you aren’t naturally like that it’s harder still and if you don’t want to surrender all your personal details to dubious internet entrepreneurs who will end up making far more out of your efforts than you ever will it can be a little emotionally wearing.

So what did I learn from my stab in the dark search that I had forgotten? Didn’t know already? Well writing is hard apparently. I never found writing hard. Writing well is another matter. Completing stuff is another game entirely.

Creative ideas can be a problem as well I see. Honestly, if your head isn’t brimming over with ideas and things you want to tell people and see more widely disseminated, why would you even think of being a writer? What is writing but a compulsion to fill other people with your ideas, tell them stories and entertain them? If you aren’t full of those ideas, stories and entertainments yourself already, what is it you are trying to write?

That may sound harsh. It’s not meant to be, at least not to those looking for help about how to write. It is harsh on those who are trying to sell you something about how to overcome those difficulties about writing. They are creating hurdles they claim only they have the knowledge to help you over.

If you want to tell a story, if you feel that urge to tell people something, then do it and don’t worry too much about getting technical tips from people who probably have less ability than you do. There is a proliferation of writing courses, from beginners to Master degrees. Just remember no-one who wrote a classic novel or a bestseller before about 1970 and the UEA course, had ever had any formal training in creative writing. It is arguable how helpful the rise of such courses has been. Has the quality of writing improved dramatically since their inception? It may make publishers and agents jobs appear easier, they have writers who have ‘qualifications’ to concentrate their search on perhaps, but there are a lot of excellent, successful writers who have never paid anyone a penny to learn something they were taught for free at school and polished through reading entertaining fiction books.

The ‘self help’ gurus I particularly love are those who will send you their ‘free’ booklets on how to be the next (insert bookselling sensation of the month) and let you know via the blurb they wrote for the aggregation site of the best X writing blogs, that they are now successful published authors of 2/5/10 bestselling books.

‘Books’ is usually the key to what they are selling. Not novels note, or poetry collections, or screenplays or short story collections but ‘books’. And what are these ‘books’? ‘How to write a million seller!’ ‘Top tips to beat the slush pile!’ ‘Your name in print! I did it, so can you!’ In other words their creative writing skill is selling flummery. Their ‘books’ are not novels etc but ‘how to’ books based on bare faced cheek. The thing skill you will learn from their direct experience is how to  write ‘how to’ books. It’s a pyramid selling scheme for the desperate.

(Please note these book titles are to the best of my knowledge fictional and are not intended to represent any existing book of those or similar names, and if they do – well if the cap fits…)

 

So my advice after a wearing afternoon is:

Don’t waste your time with Google trips down memory lane. Write something instead – or if the muse is at the beach, read something good and learn more from one well written novel/short story/poetry collection than you ever will from paying someone else to tell you something you can easily learn for free while enjoying a good read.

And Another Thing

I have been distracted by things lately, hence my lack of posting.

My son is still having major difficulties engaging in formal schooling and the admin spin-offs from this are very time consuming.

My heart decided to go into AF again at the end of January and this time stayed in it. Cardioversion due in a couple of weeks. Fingers crossed.

I also realise I have been moaning about life a lot and not putting much creative stuff up.

I promise this will change.

However for the moment, just one more gripe – book related (very much so) this time. So without further ado:

 

I just went to what passes for a library here.

The first thing that hit me as I opened the outside doors was the cacophony of sound.

On the left was the children’s library, but it was occupied by a mother and baby group.

Now I’m all for introducing kids to books and stories early but these were infants. Beyond subliminal memories of sitting in recently privatised Postman Pat’s defensively driven van, I’m not sure what this is doing.

It would be all right if it were held in a separate room, there is a meeting room with kids books in, but maybe it was in use.

When the children’s noises and the adults’ chatter died down there was the click of computer keys and whine and clunk of a photocopier to my right and directly in front of me was a help desk for the County Council dealing, in public, in an open plan space, with benefit queries, housing claims and all sorts of quite personal matters that should be dealt with elsewhere. Until recently they were, but cost cutting shut that building and moved everyone in the ‘hub’, hugger mugger.

For the library is no longer actually a library.

It is some sort of ‘hub’ with a few books lying around.

It is currently a ‘community hub’ since they binned loads of the books.

I had heard it was going to be a business hub but if it is, the difference isn’t discernible, not that I know what to look out for.

I like to look for a book and browse and dip into books in a library, in a quiet peaceful mode. Not compete with screaming children and people trying to access things they should be accessing elsewhere. Don’t misunderstand me. I think the provision of free internet access to people who can’t afford thousands of pounds to own the hardware and software connections to basic services the government has outsourced and consolidated is essential. I’d be happier if you could walk into an office and speak to a live human being, but that would no doubt destroy someone’s economic model of efficiency. Pesky humans getting in the way of efficiency models – never mind Cyberdyne is on the way.

Failing that I’d be happier if that side of the library (there are no reference works barring a small local history section available in the library anymore, the reference provision is basically Wikipedia) were in a separate room, where people could trawl the net in vain and in quiet for a reliable source for anything.

As for actual books there are hardly any to browse through and since the number of actual librarians has been slashed, some of the cataloguing and stacking leaves a bit to be desired.

But that is not my main beef about the way the place is struggling to attract visitors. I am reliably informed that, although there are obviously cuts to local authority budgets thanks to global capital crashing itself into the buffers and the rest of us having to pick up the tab, one of the main problem for the libraries in Monmouthshire is a particular councillor. This councillor has a prominent role in funding or lack of it for libraries. They hate libraries, don’t use them themselves and don’t see why anyone else would want to.

Hooray for culture eh?

Maybe they can buy any books they like. Maybe they don’t read and just like destruction of culture.

Councils under pressure point to falling use of libraries as libraries as a reason to cut funding, and go for computers and multi-use ‘hubs’ and close libraries. But of course the reason numbers of users are falling is because:

There are no books.

There is noise and distraction and competition for space.

They are used as office space for providing other social services the Council don’t like providing but have to.

The library isn’t open when people can access it.

Our ‘library’ shuts at 1700hours three days a week, at 1600hours one day a week, at 1200hours one day a week and at 1300hours on one day. The one time working people and schoolchildren get a proper chance to access a library is for three hours on Saturday between 1000hrs and 1300hrs.

3 hours to take books out, and 3 hours to return them.

And notices of overdue books have just gone all digital – so no mobile or no computer and no notification you are racking up a fine.

And so the councillor who hates libraries can stand up and say ‘what’s the point? No-one uses them.’

I’d like to point out that the staff that remain do their very best under enormously difficult circumstances. The pressure on them must be terrible and the fault here lies at a funding and commitment level way above them. Their commitment is undimmed.

PENDRAGON

I went on a day trip to Cardiff Docks last year. It had been a long time since I had been right down to the Pier head where the Senedd building now stands. When I had been at University in the mid 70s, Cardiff was still a very serious working port.The dock area was a mass of railways, coal trucks, warehouses and sheds. It always seemed foggy and Cardiff nights were punctuated for half the year with foghorns, and the other six months with the cry of peacocks in the castle grounds. Nightlife was quieter then. Pubs still shut early and there were few nightclubs. The area south of the railway seemed to be a black and white landscape, like something out of the last scene from Casablanca, minus the aeroplane.

Our trip, with other writing minded folk, gave me a different modern view of the place, but despite having burst into technicolor, I still felt the frisson of its past. Rather than having an upbeat bright modernistic feel it inspired a weird sort of Celtic noir mood in me. It gave rise to the beginning of the something posted below. So far I haven’t returned to work it into more. I have a vague feeling for who and what Pendragon may be if I develop this more; but for the moment – here is what my day trip to Cardiff produced.

The two girls were leggy and had an almost doe like quality about them. They seemed to totter slightly as they stopped their bicycles and surveyed the waterfront scene. Davies wondered what his great grandfather would have made of them if they had cycled down the wharf dressed like that in his day. The idea was mad of course. Girls in denim shorts and crop tops would have been arrested long before the dockers could have worked out what to do. Most would probably have died of shock.

Davies remembered why he was here and focused on the other occupants of the newly gentrified scene. Dragging his eyes from the girls was harder than it should have been given what he was supposed to be doing. Life in the old dog yet he told himself. It wouldn’t do to miss Pendragon if he turned up. It certainly wouldn’t do to let Pendragon see him first. He didn’t think the man was likely to be violent but you never knew. This wasn’t south Central LA or the Bronx, it wasn’t even the bay from the 1920s or 1950s. Cardiff Bay in 2015 was almost metrosexual. Whatever that meant. Davies had read the word in a few newspaper articles but they assumed you knew what the phrase meant. Davies’s brain had done a few uncomfortable cartwheels before deciding he would have to look it up online. He hadn’t got round to it yet. There always seemed so many other things to do.

Just beyond the Senedd building was a candidate for one of the phrases meanings. In what had been the entrance to the basin of Bute West Dock was a large semi permanent marquee. It was plastered in garish signs proudly displaying the title of the show inside: ‘Lady Boys of Bangkok’.

Definitely metrosexual Davies decided. Docks had always had a more, Davies struggled for the right word, one that didn’t sound too Hampstead thinkerish, not too Cyn Coed for what he wanted to convey; ‘convoluted’, that would do. A more convoluted social approach to sex than some areas. Maybe the Lady Boys of Bangkok fitted in better than they thought.

No sign of Pendragon though.

Davies took a sip of his coffee. It tasted pretty much as you would expect a cup of coffee in a Norwegian church in the docks to taste like even if the area was gentrified and the church no longer a place of worship.  The place was filling up. It had been nearly deserted when he arrived. Just a gaggle of people on a trip of some sort. They had split up and the women had left two middle aged men sat at one of the tables. They were talking earnestly about something, breaking into laughter now and again. Nothing for him to worry about. The early lunch crowd were beginning to wander down the bay now, making it harder to keep an eye out for his man. Davies checked his watch again and swung his gaze through as much of the area as he could. There were no real blind spots but a couple of the approaches were difficult to keep an eye on. The area was still very open here. The clutter of building that had filled in the area around the Senedd Building had not yet stretched down the waterside to where Davies sat. Someone was doing some more building development nearby however, and diggers and trucks kept obscuring the approach. Ideally he would have liked to have some others watching the ways in and out, but given the nature of the conversation he wanted to have, the fewer people knew about it the better.

He checked the waterside again. The sun lit flickering silver lights off the water in the bay behind the two girls who were just now cycling off on their way. A middle aged couple sat on one of the benches, very close to each other, in a way more reminiscent of young lovers than the comfortable familiarity of a long marriage. An affair perhaps? Davies smiled, good luck to them. Snatch happiness where you can. Then he thought of the other couple separated by the infidelity in front of him. Too far he thought. They may just have kept the spark alive all this time. Just because you’re a miserable old sod.

The door opened and a young man, little more than a boy, walked in. He looked around and made straight for Davies’ table across the old church. Davies prepared to throw the cup and contents into his face. The table should be enough to bring the boy down if he kicked it at him and Davies hoped he’s still be fast enough to stamp on the boy’s head before he recovered.

‘Mr Davies?’ The boy stopped short, a hopeful look on his face.

‘Yes.’

The boy dropped an envelope on the table.

‘A man gave me that for you. Said there’d be a tenner in it for me.’

‘Did he now?’

‘Aye he did.’

Davies looked at the envelope and back to the expectant, fidgeting boy.

‘Do you know him?

‘No. He just asked me to deliver this. Said I’d make some money.’

‘Where was this?’

The boy picked up the envelope again.

‘Look mate, I just wanted to help and get the tenner all right?’

Davies sighed.

‘Make it twenty if you tell me where this was and what he looked like.’

He pulled out his wallet and extracted two tens.

The boys face brightened considerably.

‘By the pier head, big bloke, red hair, old fashioned clothes.’ He nodded at Davies. ‘Like yours.’

‘Cheeky sod.’ Davies laughed and threw the notes on the table. The boy dumped the envelope and snatched up the notes.

‘He said you’d know what he meant.’ the boy said pointing at the white rectangle on the table, as he walked sideways out of the café.

Davies picked up the communication from Pendragon. He smiled. Maybe. Maybe not. He slit the top of the envelope and pulled out the note inside. He’d have to see

Elmore Leonard’s List

A friend from the writer’s group I belong to sent us all a copy of the list of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. I guess it has become more widely disseminated in the light of the great man’s recent demise.

I hadn’t realised it was Elmore Leonard’s list until I read my friend’s email. It is a list that has been knocking around the writers’ blogs scene for a while now. Sometimes there are more, sometimes less but I had never heard the list directly attributed to Leonard until his death.

It has the usual dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts. No adverbs, don’t start with the weather (this was on a recent Sins of Literature programme, not attributed I think) and watch the exclamation marks. Fair enough in general. As my friend said in the accompanying email, ‘You don’t have to agree with him.’

I guess if Leonard adhered to this list it may have worked. Of course that assumes that Leonard’s writing would have been either a lot worse or sold a lot fewer copies if he had ignored some of them. We don’t know whether that is true. That’s the problem with listening to good advice from successful people; it assumes they are as good at being self aware regarding what works as they are at doing it instinctively. If this is not simply a generic list slopped out at feeding time for aspiring authors, and is a list that someone as successful as Leonard lived by we still can’t say that makes it something we should copy. We can guess that a book filled with all these forbidden habits is likely to be terrible. If you want to read some, read Dickens, he commits at least two of them in spades, detailed descriptions of characters and going into great detail describing places and things. I happen to agree in this case. There are pieces of Dickens I find so moving as to be almost impossible to read for their poignancy and insight. There are other pieces I can hardly get through because of their tedious attention to irrelevant detail.

Leonard’s tenth commandment is supposedly the most important and is: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ (that in itself makes me wonder whether this is really Leonard –it sound very cautious for him.) I know Dickens was writing pot-boiling serials for magazines but wow! (sorry about the exclamation mark!) But this is good advice buddy.

So do I agree with Leonard? A bit I suppose (whether it is his list or not) but the  most important item that sometimes appears on the list (Elmore’s or not) is : Ignore all these if its right. I’m sure Leonard would agree.

Writers’ Groups

Off and on over the years I read some horror stories about writers’ groups. Holly Lisle deals with some of the pitfalls I was concerned about: http://hollylisle.com/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-or-how-to-choose-a-writers-group/ and to be fair she also lists some of the good points which I missed when I was worrying about the idea of finding one.

If I was concerned why did I go ahead and join one? And I did join one. I was at that point where I had written quite a lot, had had some discussions with agents and publishers and most of those had ended up with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ variation on a theme. (The big mistake here was trying to sell something first up that, although I remain convinced it is of interest to a very large audience, had the terrible sales pitch – all mine unfortunately – of ‘memoir’. I now know that unless you are already massively famous or riding a wave like ‘mis lit’ the very hint of the word memoir is the kiss of death to a story. I am stunned I got as far as I did in some negotiations given this knowledge.)

So I wanted to see what other people who didn’t know me thought of my writing in other genres, what feedback I could get and also just that feeling of belonging to a group of like minded people.

I was really lucky. Caldicot Writers Group was, and remains, very welcoming to new members. There is no master slave relationship present and if there is a ‘Shark/Dinner’ vibe going on I have missed the bloom of fresh blood in the water. There are people who have won prizes and published, and people who don’t have any great urge to enter the publishing world but love writing for its own sake. The feedback and critique I have received has been helpful and well voiced and if I haven’t always agreed with it I have taken the opportunity to go away and think about it and play around with alternatives. Sometimes I have returned to my original and at others I have seen exactly what they meant and changed it to something better. There is a wide variety of work on offer at each meeting, light fiction, quite dark psychological stories, historical fiction, poetry, family history and sharp observational journalism. There are workshops and challenges and directed writing and a couple of months back we almost organised an inspirational outing together but couldn’t quite agree on what and where. Next year maybe.

What have I given them? Probably a lot of earache and argument about their feedback to me. I hope my comments are positive and helpful, but you’d have to ask them what they think. I hope I’ve brought something new with my background if nothing else.

It has been a very positive experience for me. I have met a lot of very interesting and enjoyable people and I have learned a lot. So, have a read of Holly Lisle’s notes and dip a toe in the water if you feel like sharing. If you recognise any of her warning signs – run. If you find a group like Caldicot: enjoy the experience, soak up the knowledge and put back what you can. It may be that it is not forever, but a good writers’ group is definitely worth experiencing.

THE SINS OF LITERATURE: BBC R4 0900hrs 5 August 2013

Publicity for this series passed me by and it was by chance that I caught the last ten minutes of it on radio this morning. Intrigued, I immediately went and listened to the whole thing on iPlayer. It was fascinating to listen to authors of the quality and success of Martin Amis, Howard Jacobson and Deborah Mogach talking about novel writing and being a novelist. The episode title was ‘Thou Shalt Not Bore’. It didn’t.

 One thing that struck me was how certain things are self evident to one writer as a keystone to the novel and either irrelevant or anathema to another. The VS Pritchett comment ‘There’s no such thing as plot, only characters’ was trotted out as an introduction to a discussion about character development. Deborah Mogach waxed lyrical about how vital an interest in character development was and she described a sort of ‘method writing’ whereby she became the character for a period in order to immerse herself in that person’s psyche, to understand how the character reacted as they went through the book. Will Self confessed to a total lack of interest in character. Mogach suggested later in a section on the dodgy middle of novels that the immersion in and development of character was what got the author through that period (the bit readers skip). At this point Robert McCrum, the ring master of the series, cunningly allowed Paul Auster and Siri Hustverdt to recall an encounter with Mickey Spillane who observed, ‘Nobody reads a book to get to the middle’. Spillane at that time had sold something like 175 million books and didn’t worry about fitting into the ‘literary’ fiction world. He also said to them ‘I am a writer, you guys are authors.’ In the pecking order of the literary world that put them clearly way above him. No doubt he failed to avoid cliché, adverbs and repetition of words. Interesting that Amis derided this last piece of advice often given to aspiring writers; ‘avoid repeating a word.’ His advice was that, if it were the word you needed, you should use it three times to show you knew what you were doing.

So an iconoclast perhaps. On the other hand he revealed he finished Lionel Asbo (could anyone who hadn’t got his reputation get away with such a clichéd name/title?) and then spent a year revising it. His reason was he hadn’t put any suffering in it. I guess spending a year rewriting something produces sufficient suffering for a whole raft of novels.

This led us neatly to McCrum’s comment that ‘finishing’ the novel was in fact as Churchill said about something else entirely: ‘Not the end, nor even the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning’. Editors and rewrites again.

I shall definitely be listening to the second programme, a room of one’s own ‘Thou Shalt not Hide’.