Tag Archives: Reading

The Only Two Books A Writer Needs (Part 1)

BookshelfThe bookshelf by my desk

It’s that ‘Back to School’ time of year, when I can’t walk past a stationery shop without nearly having a heart attack.  Every time I go to Staples, I feel like I want to rip all the notebooks off the shelves and writhe about in them like an ecstatic horse.  The Martha Stewart Home Office line gives me palpitations.

But there isn’t enough money to buy everything I want, and besides, I have cupboards full of notebooks and pens already – how many does a writer really need?

Need is not something we really think about much these days.  It is not a First World problem, because most of have enough to meet our primary needs, and at that point, the word morphs into that seductive, purple velvet lined entity that is ‘Want’.

Want becomes most acute for me when I am in a book shop.  It is very hard to avoid the conviction that that my life will not be complete until I have the latest edition of wotsit, or that Benedict Cumberbatch will fall in love with me, if only I buy that particular tome.  I’m too much the magpie.  I like the latest sparkling things.  It’s a terrible affliction.

My new office space, and all the decluttering that went with it, has focussed my mind on this issue.  How many books does a writer really need?  And more to the point, how many books on writing does a writer really need?

The truth is, horrible though it may be, I don’t really need every copy of every book about writing that comes out.  I can get them from the library if I want them.  I only really need two books:

The Dictionary

In my opinion, no house or building, or even tent, is complete without a dictionary.  A reasonable one.  I’m not saying you have to go out and buy the full length Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to an insane number of volumes, and which only public institutions and Russian oligarchs are probably capable of affording.  You don’t even have to buy the two-volume Shorter version, which is still prohibitively expensive.  Lets face it, you could probably look up the more obscure words that these monsters contain online.

But you need a dictionary.

A dictionary is your friend.  A dictionary provides meaning in the world.  It provides knowledge.  It makes sense.  Even if English is your mother tongue, and you think you know everything it has to offer, believe me, there will always be a seven letter word beginning with L that turns out to be a seventeenth Hungarian stomach pump that you never knew existed.  That’s why I love the English language.  In all its glory, it is like an endless adventure through the Amazon jungle, where thrilling new words are always lurking under unexpected leaves.  And you never know when they might pop up.

Best to have a dictionary close at hand when you are reading.  You never know.  (You wouldn’t believe the number of times my husband has lost his temper with me in bed at night, when I have been reading my bedtime novel and found a word I don’t know – and asked him what it meant.  He’s got a PhD, and wields words like ‘hermeneutics’ on a daily basis, so I assume he knows everything.  He gets a bit short-tempered when asked about seventeenth century Hungarian stomach pumps when he’s sleepy!)

If you are intent on expanding your vocabulary, as I am, keep a little notebook too, to scribble down new words and meanings so that you remember them.

I have a very nice Chambers Dictionary, which my mother-in-law gave me.  It was second hand, but the meanings it gives are accessible, and it has a wide enough variety of words to satisfy my needs at the moment.  It is also a chunky 5.5cm thick, with nice fine paper, and so is a really satisfying thing to handle too.  You can pick up reasonable dictionaries in stationers and book shops this time of year at great ‘Back to School’ prices, but second hand bookshops and charity shops are always a good bet too, because dictionaries are slow to go out of date, and the basics will always be of use.

(Some readers will be bouncing around in their seats at this point, and crying the praises of online and digital dictionaries.  Yes, I get that they are useful, but they do not have the browsing dimension that real books do, and therefore I still recommend you get the hard copy.)

I originally wrote this as one post, but it got so big I decided to split it.  I think it words better that way, and I hope you agree!  So the next post, on Friday, will be about the second crucial book you need to have on your bookshelf.  The thesaurus.

Meanwhile, Happy wording,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Support your local library

the forum-norwichI am tempted to break into my own, rather wobbly version of Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’ here, but slight amendments the eponymous destination.

“When you’re alone

And life is making you lonely

You can always go:

To the Library!”

Okay, it doesn’t work, but you get the idea.  The Library is your friend.  It’s your soulmate.  It’s a world of excitement and adventure cocooned within four walls.  And it’s currently free (at least at the moment it is in the UK– but David Cameron, I’m watching you!)

I have always felt a strange sense of peace amongst books.  Not for me the sudden flash of panic as the realisation dawns that there are never going to be enough hours in one’s life to read everything one wants to.  Books en masse produce in me a kind of nirvana, a bliss, a calm.  It doesn’t matter how bad things are, a library is one of the two places I can go to know peace.  (The other is the beach, in case you were wondering, but that’s another story.)  This is no coincidence.

Jeanette Winterson, in her emotionally complex autobiography, credits working her way (alphabetically – how pragmatic) through her local library with saving her life from a traumatic and abusive childhood.  Books give us the power to escape, to transcend, to find knowledge and wisdom, happiness and peace.

And more than that – Terry Pratchett notes the strange distortion that occurs when books are gathered together.  He calls it L-space, a phenomenon in which the power of knowledge bends the time space continuum so that all places and times are accessible from the magnificent Library of the Unseen University (although travelling in L-space can be dangerous!). This is really just a charming metaphor for what Winterson reports.  Libraries open up unexplored and unimagined realms for us without our ever having to leave their environs.  Although, if you have ever visited Kim’s Bookshop in Arundel, Sussex, you might agree with Pratchett that L-space does indeed exist!

Libraries have changed greatly since the days when my Dad used to take me down to our village library every Friday night with my fist full of little cardboard pockets to exchange with the kindly librarian for books that enchanted and fascinated me all week long.  Now I frequent the UK’s most popular library, the Millennium Library at the Forum, Norwich, which is housed in a breath-taking vision of modern architecture, and has the highest borrowing numbers in the country.  No wonder.  Its great.

My favourite treat is to go to the library without a time limit, and just browse, as if I were in a sweet shop.  I can wander about, dipping into sections, picking out jewels here and there like a magpie.  I can have whatever I want to try, and I don’t have to worry about how much its going to cost me.  Often I find books I have been hanging my nose over on Amazon or favourite blogs, wondering whether I should buy them – with the library I can try them out, and see if they are worth the investment.

I always make sure I browse the ‘Just Returned’ trolleys too.  This is a great way to come across books that you would never have tried otherwise, because they are shelved in sections you would not normally think to visit.  These eclectic shelves are a great way to expand your reading by picking up whatever appeals to you.

Appeal is crucial.  Sometimes I go in with the challenge to choose books on the basis of their covers alone!  This is a fun thing to do with fiction particularly, because you end up not only with a bunch of stuff you would never have found otherwise, but also you get to sample the publishers’ strategies on book design, which is a useful thing to know about if you are a writer or illustrator.

If I find a book that proves especially useful for research purposes, I always make sure I record its Class Number as well as the author and title details in my writers notebook, so that I can find them easily again.

One of my most profound library revelations of recent years is the idea that if I choose a book that it turns out I don’t like, I don’t have to keep it the full three weeks.  Yes, I can take it back the very next day, if I like.  Nobody will judge me.  Its like test driving a car.  If it doesn’t prove useful, its not the end of the world.  I used to have such an investment in choosing the right books to borrow.  But there are so many books to delight in.  Why worry?  Just try a few on for size.  Its not as if you have to pay for them.

Libraries are an enormous resource.  As are librarians.  Many of them are highly trained, and they really love it when a borrower asks them a question which is something more interesting than ‘why won’t my card work in the machine?’  They love to ferret out unusual and rare tomes, and rifle through the vagaries of the inter-library loan system.  They are usually only too happy to help you with your research questions.  There is so much knowledge and expertise on offer, and most of time we don’t even know it is there.

This week, give yourself the best treat ever.  Go and gorge yourself at the library!

Happy browsing,

EF

On Cabbages and Trombones – Making Language Strange

The expression ‘cabbages and trombones’ was one used by the poet Ian Macmillan at a recording of a poetry radio show which I went to see with a friend a while back, and the phrase stuck with me.  He was talking about how poets seek to make language strange and startling, how they seek to use it to weave a rich tapestry of image and idea.  That, after all, is the purpose of poetry, to enrich our experience of life with pattern and syllable.

The concept chimed with me again when my husband was wrestling with a writing problem of his own.  Besides being an academic, he runs an online whisky company, and occasionally works as a whisky writer.  He had been asked to contribute reviews of a variety of whiskies for this book.  Little bottles duly began to arrive in the post every morning, and off he went at a rate of three or so per evening.  Everything was fine for the first thirty tests or so.  But then he began to run out of descriptors.  Just how many new adjectives can you come up with when you’ve got 60 whiskies to review?  They can’t all taste of TCP or green jelly babies.  Can each review really be different from the last?

And today, as I busy myself with planning my new writing schedule, and working on new stories, it has come back again.

Experts say those with a college education generally have about 12,000-17,000 words in their vocabulary, but as writers we need to have far more and we need to use them in unusual and riveting ways.  I realise that I have dropped into the habit of reading very little but fanfiction, and if you are a fanfiction reader yourself, you will know that there are a lot of linguistic ruts involved.  Favourite words include laving, ravishing, carding (of luxuriant hair), trembling and so on.  No fanfic is complete without somebody emitting ‘ragged breath’.  If you have read enough of these, you begin to spot the clichés.  If you read too many, they scream out of the screen at you.  (I hold my hands up and say I am as guilty as any of falling into this trap!)

The trouble is that if you don’t read more widely than just what other people write on the internet, your vocabulary stays static.  This is what mine has been doing.  Now I am writing again on a daily basis, I have realised how stagnant my linguistic skills have become.  Of course, its not just words, but metaphors and similes.  I need to polish up my style, make it strange and new.  I need to expand my consumption, and open my mind.

 WARNING:  Incoming Master Plan for Expanding Lingustic Skills:

I’m taking a two-pronged attack:

  1. Widen my reading
  2. Use my notebook at all times

I’ve been reading just fanfics and nonfiction all summer, and its been a long time since I actually finished a proper novel.  You can’t be a writer if you don’t read.  Mostly I just read at bed time, a few paragraphs to help me drift off.  But I need to take Stephen King’s sage advice:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Stephen King, “On Writing”,

Hodder and Stoughton (2000) p164

 Of course, I’ve got a whole pile of books lying around, waiting to be ploughed through.  Top of the pile are ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.  I don’t especially like McEwan, but I am determined not to let this bloody book defeat me.  It’s the third time I’ve tried to read it, after all, and I refuse to be beaten!

I have also decided to follow Ian Macmillan’s advice.  Poetry is the way to go.  I’m not a reader of poetry – I’ve barely read any since my degree – but if you want to know about making language strange, go to the experts.  I went to the library yesterday and got out two collections, one of Ted Hughes, and one of Simon Armitage, because I had heard of them.  I’ll let you know if it works.

The second prong (I love that word, don’t you?) is more nebulous.  Out comes my little red Moleskine.  I need to think about how I am going to get the ball rolling on this particular aspect, but just jotting down a few ideas on what the weather feels like, smells like, tastes like, or overheard conversations, or the colours of shadows, might be a good start.  Again, I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, here’s to cabbages and trombones.  And whisky that tastes of TCP and green jelly babies.  Both of which have taught me a lot about writing.

(Incidentally, you may like to know that I am currently publishing a new fanfic called ‘A Shadow of His Former Self’.  You can find it here at A03, and here at Fanfiction.net.  I hope it takes your fancy.)

Happy creating,

EF

Flow, or How To get Out Of Your Readers’ Way

flow at Ardnave

Ardnave Beach, Islay – I didn’t have an illuminating photo of a stream, so rocks will have to do!

You’ve probably heard of Flow.  It is that psychological state of perfect concentration that we fall into when our attention is completely absorbed in something, whether it is running, painting, reading, crafting or anything else that involves us completely.

As a writer, Flow is what you are after in your reader.  You have probably felt it yourself.  Remember those books that were so engrossing that you could lose hours at a time between the pages, and not notice?

The trouble is that when you are reading, the tiniest thing can jolt you out of it – from the cat meowing for its tea, to your baby crying to be picked up, or even something as small as the rain tapping against the window.  As a writer you are up against this too-human tendency, and your job is to make sure that you do not add to the distractions.

This is why getting the nuts and bolts right is so important.

For example, have you ever come across a typographical error in a printed novel?  It seems to be happening more and more these days, and I find I notice at least one in every novel I read.  It is irksome.  It makes you suddenly aware that you are in the act of reading a book, rather being so caught up in the action that you are in it with the characters, a part of the crowd.

I have judged a number of short story competitions in my time, and I never fail to be amazed at how writers fail to take account of this. Being aware of your readers’ flow can improve your writing immeasurably, and can make the difference between a prize and publication, or languishing at the bottom of the reject pile.

Its not just about presentation – lets face it, in this digital age, your work could be presented in any number of ways, so even if you make sure you conform to the industry standard of 12 point, double spaced text, (which I would always advise) your reader may not ultimately be consuming it that way.  You can make the difference, and keep your reader in the moment, by observing a few simple rules:

1. Pay attention to punctuation.  It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference.  Read your work aloud, and notice where you take a breath, or pause.  That’s where a comma should go.  Read a good book about it.  You can’t do better than this one.

2.  Don’t trust the spell checker.  It can’t tell the difference between ‘passed’ and ‘past’, and that little difference could be enough to annoy your reader out of their flow, and maybe give up completely.

3. Get to grips with language.  Knowing the meaning of words is really important, so don’t just take it for granted – Fanfiction writers, I am looking at you!  Just because someone else uses the word ‘ravage’ instead of ‘ravish’, doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistake! (And ‘leisurely’ is not an adverb. Grrr!)  When in doubt, look it up!

4.  Don’t use overlong sentences.  You aren’t Henry James.  Thank God.  Keep it to one or two clauses at most.  Don’t ramble.  Short sentences may increase the pace of your scene, but you can slow things down in other ways if thats what you want, through description and reflection.

5.  Don’t repeat yourself.  This is a private bugbear of mine, I have to confess.  You don’t need to use the same word three times in a three line paragraph.  You’ve got vocabulary – use it!  If you want to understand how the breadth of language can be used to write a whole book about just one thing, avoiding  repetition, read Patrick Süskind’s dazzling novel,  ‘Perfume’.  It proves you really don’t have to repeat yourself.

6. Proof read.  And then do it again.  And then get someone else to proof read for you.  Seriously.  There are so many typos and spelling mistakes (commonly referred to as ‘smelling mistakes’ in our house) that you often can’t see without help.  (And now I am having a mini-nervous breakdown that there will be typos in this article that I haven’t seen – you see, we all do it, so beware!)

These are just a few simple things you can do to give your reader a smooth ride.  If you do that, not only will they keep reading to the end, but they are far more likely to come back for more.  And thats what you want!

Happy writing!