50 books that will change your life

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Was the title of the list posted on World Book Day last week! I have actually only read 26 of them – though with a lot, the reason for not yet reading them is that they’re YA fiction published after I was originally at that stage, I suppose, so it takes longer for me to get to them. “Change your life” is a big goal – I have actually had a couple of those recommended to me with that suggestion – one was The Fault in Our Stars which got me re-reading a lot of YA fiction, so maybe that counts? The other was The Life of Pi, which definitely did not change my life!! A book that has though, I think, is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, my favourite book.

I think the strategy is interesting – categorising books by what emotion they’ll provoke, which is a slightly different approach. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for something weepy (The Time Traveller’s Wife) and sometimes you want something inspirational (The Sparrow) and sometimes you just want plain old entertaining (The Hunger Games, Twilight).

How many have you read? Are there any on the list you’ve been meaning to get around to?

50 books to change your life

 

Theme: what it is and how to use it to make your writing sparkle

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This morning I started redrafting a story I wrote towards the beginning of last year and abandoned for reasons I can’t quite remember! I’ve read through it and had the ‘oh, actually it’s quite good’ thought, which is always pleasant – and far more likely after a long break from the work itself when your head’s not so buried in it.

In amongst the small ideas, it’s missing something broader – it’s lacking a central spine or theme, to unify it and really take the reader through the entire piece. It got me thinking about what really ‘theme’ is, and why it matters.

I’d define theme as what the story is about – not the plot or the characters, but the big moral or philosophical ideas about life, the universe and everything. Thinking about theme, you can see it in every novel and they’re always the stronger for having something more wide-reaching to say:

  • Harry Potter (J K Rowling) – the importance of friendship, of bravery and the courage to always do the right thing
  • Emma (Jane Austen) – being honest with yourself; allowing others to make their own decisions; realising you don’t always know best
  • The Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – how thin a veneer of civilisation we have, and how quickly it can be destroyed
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John  Green) – coping with illness, making the most of life

Not insignificant, then!! So, I went on a search to find what some others thought about theme and how to incorporate it into your writing.

I quite like this definition from Writer’s Digest:

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.

Romance novelist Helen Fairfax has this interesting post – http://helenafairfax.com/2013/07/19/writing-tips-using-theme-to-deepen-your-writing/

where she discusses a workshop she went on to explore the idea of theme further and had this to say:

There can be several themes running through a novel, of course, but there should be one strong theme which is the emotional core of your book, and the main idea you’re exploring.

She suggests Pride and Prejudice’s opening lines give away the theme – searching for love – as well as the title – beware both pride and prejudice when judging people.

Useful points from her post include introducing the theme early – the title, first line or paragraph should give suggestions. Use the theme to help sub-plots or propel the main plot. In a longer novel, the sub-plots could circle around the major themes, developing it in different ways to the main plotline. Use the theme as metaphor or symbolism – in the names, setting or in the descriptive language you employ. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the theme of isolation echoes throughout, from the abandoned old house on the marsh, cut off by the causeway when the tide comes in, to the character’s desire to be alone leading him on a cycle ride to clear his head.

I’ve also gone back to Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k, which I find enormously helpful, to go over the structuring and hooks involved in building a story, which she calls story Velcro.

The current draft is around 11,000 words, and I expect it’ll probably end up around the 16-17k mark when I’m done. Next task is to take this reading, and return to my original text to develop the themes further and firmly embed those hooks!

Poetry Friday: Anne Hathaway (Carol Ann Duffy)

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A favourite of mine – have studied it a lot with students and it’s always proclaimed the favourite at some point. I think I first came across it when teaching GCSE but it’s just as popular at A-level, perhaps more so because I think the students can understand some of the nuances of longing a little more by then.

Shakespeare famously left Anne Hathaway his “second best bed”, as Duffy uses for the inspiration in her epigraph – because, it’s widely assumed, the best bed was the one reserved for guests and so he’s leaving her the bed they shared together.

On first reading, the poem is a beautiful elegy to a writer, full of fantastical imagery and lyrical fairytales: the height of romantic description. It is slow, thoughtful, and ends sombrely – the “casket of my widow’s head” meaning she’s left with just her memories and imaginations (casket also having the dual meaning of both coffin and a box for the most precious of documents and possessions).

On a second reading, however, the poem becomes more than that – it’s an intensely private recollection of a relationship, loving one another in the most intimate moments. The way they touched, kissed, the sensation Anne expresses that she is only here now because she has become something more or other than herself as a result of his having touched her, as if he has brought her to life. It’s far more physical than the elusive “verb dancing in the centre of a noun” would suggest at first thought, and therein lies some of its appeal for me. It’s a poem that requires a second reading but doesn’t demand it. You can read this, think it’s lovely, and move on. But it rewards a second look.

 

Anne Hathaway
by Carol Ann Duffy from The World’s Wife

‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’
(from Shakespeare’s will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

Revamp or move on?

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I’ve just gone through a little computer-filing tidy up, trying to get my stuff in order, especially writing things. I still have a stack of paper ideas to get into a notebook – I’m aiming to have all ideas either in one digital scrivener file, or in a notebook.

I’m astounded by how many words I have written and discarded.

I’m not talking about drafts which eventually led to something finished, either, but something started where I’ve sometimes written upwards of 50,000 words, and abandoned without finishing. There’s three half-written novels and over a dozen short stories. The ‘ideas fragments’ files includes many many more, which haven’t been really developed at all.

So the question I’m now left to ponder is what to do with all of that? I’ve signed up for an Arvon course in the summer which I’m excited about, but I also want to be meaningful – it’s a great opportunity, part funded by a teacher’s grant, and it’s both expensive (even with the grant) and a week of holiday time. So I want to come out of it with something useful. I was thinking about redrafting something that’s been in my head for a long time – the only problem is, I don’t know how to get it out. It’s one of the 50k monsters. I’ve changed viewpoint, voice, tone, location, time period. I can’t figure out quite who this elusive character IS that I have in my mind, other than she seems to fit into everything, and nothing, all at the same time. She pops in and out of my head, but never brings her story with her. I quite dislike the airy-fairy idea of characters really existing – I’ve never really found that idea sits right with me, but at the same time she really does seem to be hiding from me.
I have a few ideas what to do with her – but nothing concrete. And while I don’t, I’m wary of starting yet another version of her story and ending up with thousands of words to discard with all the others.

Do I keep thinking about her, and trying to figure out where she comes from? Or do I move on, either to something brand new or another story that I have but have not finished? I don’t know. I do know that I’m ready to write, and I feel like I’m stumbling over her pushing herself into my brain.

Poetry Friday: Glory of Women

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I loved my A-level English class. A really great group, I have fantastic memories of discussion in a room that I probably remember as smaller than it really was, and the way my teacher made everything both absolutely clear and made me think at the same time! One of the novels we read was Pat Barker’s Regeneration, which was wonderful. The story of Dr Rivers, who worked at a mental hospital called Craiglockhart during WWI, and treated during his time there patients including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – it was where the two met.

I found the breadth of masculine relationships in the novel fascinating, and have returned to the novel repeatedly, including studying at university and reading it many times since. I love the way that Rivers interacts with Sassoon and with another patient, Prior, and the way Sassoon mentors Owen – sometimes rather brutally!

Sassoon’s deep conflict about the war comes through in this poem, I think. He does, in Regeneration, try to reconcile the government’s instructions and his patriotism with the unrelenting horrors of war and the massacres he witnesses on a daily basis. In this poem, the bitterness is evident as he blames everyone at home for their insistence on triumph, seemingly at any cost and ignoring the price being paid across the water. Then, he twists again by addressing German mothers: he’s deeply resentful of both sides of this conflict, and sympathetic towards soldiers in both trenches.

Glory of Women

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses–blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

Siegfried Sassoon

Free short: The Painted Man

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Free short: The Painted Man

Now available on amazon for kindle. For a limited time only, available too as a free download by clicking on the image. If you like it, buy another short from my amazon page!

Once downloaded, you can email to your kindle address. If you’re not sure what it is, go to Amazon/Manage your kindle – it’s listed next to the picture of your device.

 

This is part of my bid to clear my hard drive of fragments, snippets, and half-finished ideas – completing them and publishing them! What do you think? Would love to hear comments below.

Thanks for reading!

Creative writing inspiration: Northern Lights from space

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Aurora NASA

Northern Lights artist impression

 

Half term thrills!

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With all the hassle and political complaining about teaching, it’s an oft-repeated comment that teachers have too many holidays. Any teacher who tells you the holidays aren’t a great incentive is probably not telling the truth, but equally no teacher will ever tell you that they drop their work at 3.15 Friday and don’t pick up till Monday morning at 8am! The half term holidays are a good chance to catch up on everything. They’re a great opportunity to get any remnants of marking done, and after the difficult half term we’ve just had, it’s taken me several days to clear that hurdle! It’s also a good opportunity to get some of that other list done, the ‘someday’ list that doesn’t get touched during the hectic term time when we’re busy responding to whatever is going on around us. And more importantly, perhaps, it’s an opportunity to catch up on the outside work stuff. Visiting family and friends we put off in the term because we have planning to do, to do those grown up life admin tasks that have to wait until everyone’s holidays.

This isn’t a poor me post. Quite the opposite, I think. I’m able to spend a significant portion of my holiday with family which is brilliant, and spending some time just reading, thinking. Not quite writing yet, but certainly clearing the work to do list which I feel has prevented  me for some months now.

I can’t remember which productivity guru it was, but i have definitely read about the conflict between the urgent and the important, and the dangers of allowing one to crowd out the other. There is a fundamental problem in that if I turn up without a lesson planned, I have nearly thirty teenagers who are going to have a wasted hour. There will always be a day job/evening non conflict, and sadly the one that pays for my home will win out, but my goal for the next few months is still to keep at it, finishing bits of projects that have been put to one side. I’ve been reading through some making notes on what to improve, where to edit, and think I’m in a pretty good place to start doing that so watch this space!

Hectic continues apace!

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Has been fairly crazed here so far this year! (and when does it stop being ok to think of it as ‘the new year’? I usually go with my birthday, which is coming up frighteningly soon!). January’s brought with it a LOT of hard work, including several competitions which are great to watch but involve late nights, and a never-ending pace.

Writing so far is seriously taking a back seat, which I find frustrating – and it’s not that I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, because in fact I just had an hour of marking some pretty impressive first attempts at poetry analysis, but I do find the lack of writing frustrating! one of my goals for this year is to improve my ‘ideas bank’ which is taking shape in a couple of different ways. One is to start properly recording ideas – they’re EVERYWHERE at the moment, which means they’ll never become anything, so I’ gradually gathering notes, images and ideas and putting them in one place, starting with a cool new notebook.  

On th Road notebookI’m also going to work through some of the short stories and drafts that I have on my hard drive that are unfinished because I dashed them off and left them. The Mslexia diary this year is dedicated to productivity, and one of the things they say is that unfinished work hangs over your head – it takes up the space you need to finish that new project, because you can’t move on. So, I’m going to work on finishing projects. I’ll add them to the Amazon kindle marketplace, but some of the shorter fiction will be posted here for free, so watch this space!

Two very exciting things from the last fortnight;

I booked onto an Arvon course for the summer, which I’m thrilled about. I’ve been on their mailing list for three years but not committed to it, and I’ve finally done it and, amazingly, they give teachers a grant so it’s affordable, which is wonderful. I really feel like I’m finally getting my writing confidence back, and think this will be a real boost as well, spending a week with other writers. So, I need a novel in progress to go with! My goal here is to rough a draft of the novel I’ve been toying with for years, to get down to it.

The other, even more exciting, is that my fiancé and I had an offer accepted on a house we want to buy! There’s a lot to put in place, financial institutions to pacify, surveys and all that horrendously grown-up stuff we’re gradually finding our way through, but we’re thrilled about it! Watch this space for further developments…

There and back again….

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Not an original title, I grant you. But fairly true nonetheless. I have been here before. I have returned.

January’s always a funny time of year. It’s a time when people at work are saying no to cakes (highly unusual, doesn’t last) and when there are more runners on the streets as I drive home. It’s when all the adverts are about weight loss, debt reduction, and end-of-season furniture sales. A time to make resolutions and have, in the next breath, someone tell you that they don’t make them because nobody ever keeps to them – as though the possible failure is reason enough not to try. For me, January’s always a bit strange because it’s still very dark, cold and rainy – not the weather anyone would want to start running in if you ask me! Work-wise, it’s busy with exams and so on, and personally just winding back up again from the Christmas holiday.

November/December kind of vanished into a blur on the blog for several reasons. Work went a bit haywire – it always does in the autumn, with extra marking, working classes a bit harder, everyone gets more fraught towards Christmas and needs a bit more of a push.

Personally, it’s been incredibly exciting – I got engaged at the beginning of November, and the next six weeks disappeared in a glowy haze when any time I didn’t spend working was spent musing on pinterest and looking Rock My Wedding, Boho Bride and the awesome Offbeat Bride. I am very happily affianced (and use that word whenever possible to describe myself!) and am really enjoying looking around at ideas, thinking, pre-planning and hoping to rediscover some love of crafting that I haven’t really done for a while now. It also turns out that I’m a little more into the whole wedding planning process than I thought I would be – I think it’s my immense love of organising! We’re also still looking for a house, and obviously Christmas/New Year is nearly three weeks of full-on stuff.

But – all that has really hammered my writing over the past couple of months, and I’ve not really got as much done as I would have liked to, and now everything’s settling into a little more normality, work’s easing off slightly, it seems a good time to reflect and review where I was last year and where I want to be this year.

Don't Give Up

Jim Rohn, I think, suggests doing this much more often than annually. I think he suggests spending a weekend a month reviewing your goals and resetting them because everything drifts by degrees. The analogy he uses is going to the moon – it’s such a far-off target that if your aim is off by just a few degrees, you miss it by miles. So, every once in a while, you check your course. Check why you went off track and fix it. Make the adjustments that you need to. Reinvigorate your ideals. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to do just that – think about what happened, where I went wrong – and right – and what I need to do to keep that progress going.