Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Something different to read

A little while ago, I started writing what I thought at the time would be a satire. It sometimes feels as though events have overtaken it, but perhaps I can outstrip reality if I make a real effort. Certainly, it would be a break from the editing of a more 'serious' novel that should be available next year. In the meantime, here's the opening section, with the possibility of more being posted if there's any demand. Warning: if you're easily offended, you may be better off heading elsewhere....

(Working title: Mother of Invention)

As deathbed scenes go, it was pretty standard. Elderly patriarch surrounded by those who loved him and a few who were more ambivalent, gradually slips away, fades out of existence so slightly that it is a few moments before everyone realises he's gone. And then, it starts to sink in and while everything has changed, life goes on.

Gabriel was first to break the silence. 'So, what now? A wake? It's not as if there's a will to read.'

The others stood back, deferring to his seniority. There were no tears shed, it was all expected. It had been on the cards for years, after all. A gradual debilitation that led to the inevitable. One small matter, however.

'Who's going to let everyone know?' Asriel began the conversation that the others were too cowardly to open.

'Do they need to know?' Gabriel replied. 'Will it achieve anything, telling them? Aren't they better off not knowing?'

His position again led to a general agreement with his assessment of the situation. They wouldn't say anything, leave everyone happy.

Lucifer disagreed. Being disowned for all that time was bound to lead to some ill-feeling, after all. He grabbed his jacket and headed for his favourite Internet cafe.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Responsibility in the Atomic Age

The commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing has caused me to reflect on my grandfather. The son of an illiterate carpenter, after surviving duty in the Royal Engineers during the first World War, he was able to go to Cambridge and subsequently became joint Editor of the science journal Nature. In all the years he worked for Nature, he wrote only two editorials - one after Hiroshima, and the other after Nagasaki.

The kind people at Nature allowed me to have pdfs of both editorials for personal use only, so I'm not sure how much I should quote. If I have gone beyond what is acceptable, then I apologise. If you want to read the editorials in full, then you'll have to utilise a subscription to a library service of some sort. However, today at least, I leave you with my grandfather's thoughts at the time.

"...the very successfulness [of the development of an atomic bomb] induces a feeling akin to dismay that science should contribute such an engine of destruction to the world. .... There is another facet of the world situation which this scientific and technical development has brought to the forefront, namely, the immense responsibility now placed in the hands of those with exact knowledge of the steps necessary to release atomic energy. ... ..the United Nations, and especially Great Britain, the United States and Canada, hold in their hands a weapon with which they can dominate the world - a responsibility the discharge of which will require the highest degree of statesmanship. They also hold a potential source of power capable of contributing immensely to the welfare and material progress of mankind - a further and even greater responsibility. How will they use it? Governments are notoriously impersonal and they come and go. It therefore devolves upon the individual, be he man of science or layman, to understand the potentialities of atomic energy, even he understands little of the method of its release; and to ensure that his elected representatives ... are also aware of their responsibilities in the matter. It is not a matter of exact knowledge so much as an appreciation of right and wrong in dealing with our neighbours, who are now every nation of the world. ... There can be no question of halting investigations until mankind is fitter to receive them; if material research has outstripped the progress of knowledge of man, then the tempo of investigation of man as a social being must be increased until both can progress, side by side, carrying man onwards to the higher ideals of life for which the best of each generation are always striving."  from Nature 156 11 August p.154

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Support Your Local Arts Groups!

There's a lot in the press generally about supporting local businesses - and quite rightly too - and they even have their own 'day'. But there is nothing specific that I am aware of about supporting local arts groups.

I enjoy going to the theatre and often go to London, to the National Theatre or the West End, and it is a great pleasure to see such skilled performers giving their all. But it is hard to make a living as an actor and there are many who can't afford to restrict themselves to such august venues, holding down 'day jobs' in many cases to pay the bills. And that doesn't even begin to count all the amateur groups who rehearse for weeks and sometimes months on end to provide entertainment for those who don't want, or can't afford, to go to London.

Bicester doesn't have a theatre (yet, she says optimistically) so for professional theatre, we have to go further afield - but we do at least have a choice of Oxford or Aylesbury, or, if you're prepared to trek a little longer, Milton Keynes, Northampton and of course Stratford-upon-Avon. It may be a drive, but there is plenty to choose from - and that's just theatre.

But there are local groups too. Launton Village Players are lucky enough to perform sometimes to a packed audience; their annual pantomime is a highlight for many in the dark days of the February half-term break, but they also perform a Summer Show in July, and there is an Autumn Play at the end of October - and although the venue for these is quite full, it's rarely sold out - and it's only a small venue. They could make much more for the charities they support if more people went to see what they provide. Bicester Choral and Operatic Society put on Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe over the recent half-term, to great critical acclaim, yet achieved less than half the audience it could have done (I confess to a vested interest here as assistant director, but it really was an excellent production and all those who came really enjoyed it). A concert by Akeman Voices as part of the Deddington Music Festival was excellent, beautiful music, singing and poems, yet the church was less than half full. This is just a small selection of the opportunities locally.

As a performer, it is disheartening in the extreme to look out into the audience and see only a handful of people. As part of the organisation of BCOS, I can tell you it is not only disheartening but extremely expensive when so few people make the effort to see what's on offer.

And is it really such an effort? I've been to numerous things over the years to support friends who are taking part or organising something, usually for charity. It's not that expensive, especially as I don't need to pay train-fare to get there. And I have always taken something good out of it. Maybe I haven't always enjoyed the whole thing, but *that doesn't matter*. My friends' months of rehearsal have been rewarded by having someone show up to appreciate them and their effort. And I've done something to deter my evolution into a couch potato.

A few years ago, Dillie Keane, of Fascinating Aida, who lives around here somewhere, wrote in The Stage that this area was a cultural desert. Clearly it isn't at the moment, but unless we support our local arts groups, they may not survive to entertain us for much longer. Then it will become a desert.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

When the Muse strikes....

For the last few weeks, I've had trouble sleeping for the expected eight hours, or however long is usual. In essence, I seem to be waking at 5 am and then struggling to get back to sleep for an hour or more, eventually dozing from 6.30 until whatever time I have to get up (fortunately, most days of the week, there isn't a 'have to'). I don't know if there are noisy birds waking at that time, or if the earlier sunrise is disturbing me, but it's pretty consistent. Finally, this morning, I decided it wasn't worth trying to go back to sleep, got up just before 6 and, armed with a cup of coffee, headed out to my office in my dressing gown.

Two hours later and I'd finished the coffee, listened to the whole of the playlist for the Launton Village Players' forthcoming summer show (trying to learn the words of the songs, or at least the tunes) and added over 800 words to the WIP that had languished for a couple of months, pondered but never augmented.

I have always thought I was more productive creatively in the afternoon, once the tedium of chores had been overcome in the morning, so to say I am surprised is putting it mildly. Is this a one-off or a sign of a changing creative process? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, I'm off to have a nap. Because, you know, I was up early.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Art of Self-Promotion

Whether you are signed up by a traditional publishing house, a smaller publisher or self-published, it seems that the job of marketing your book falls largely down to you. Publishers have marketing departments who can advise you and provide the initial contacts, but as far as I can see, the agent and the author have to do most of the work.

If you're like my friend Carol McGrath, author of the Daughters of Hastings Trilogy 'The Handfasted Wife', 'The Swan-Daughter' and soon-to-be-released 'The Betrothed Sister', you do a good job of it. Carol works hard at keeping up contacts via Twitter, the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists Association. She writes reviews of other people's books for magazines and such. She appears frequently on other blogs (and writes her own blog rather more regularly than I do mine!). She does radio and newspaper interviews for the local press. She has a facebook page for readers who are not necessarily friends. In short, she works at it. Her book sales are doing very nicely thank you - though of course it helps that they are great stories and very well written.

I, on the other hand, hate the whole idea of self-promotion. It goes against my personal grain. I try to tweet but it's erratic and I'm very poor at reminding people of my novel that way. I haven't joined any writerly societies. Although I read a lot, I haven't written any reviews and I'm not featured on other people's blogs. The local press have probably never heard of me. And my blog, as you are doubtless aware, is very much unscheduled. Is my book a great story and well written? I like to think so, but my sales are still in double figures (though I was very excited when I first hit the dizzy heights of the teens).

I know what needs to be done if I want to improve my sales figures. Small steps so far include handing in my notice at my all-consuming part-time teaching job and agreeing to be on the committee for the HNS 2016 Conference. Getting on with writing the next book would help too! I guess mentioning the name of my book and including the link occasionally might help.... Moses in Chains, a fictional autobiography of Michelangelo. Available now for kindle, other formats coming at some point.

In other news, we went to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime last night. Absolutely stunning performance piece, especially from the central character played by Joshua Jenkins who was on stage virtually the entire evening, but also from the rest of the cast whose timing was essentially impeccable. It's on tour until the autumn - see it if you can. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Point of Workshopping

Finally getting my poetic mojo back, I recently went on a poetry workshop dayschool with the fabulous Jenny Lewis. The topic for the day was 'Revisioning and Editing'. We were invited to send, in advance, two poems that weren't quite working in their current form and then, on the day, after some suggestions as to how to approach such problem poems on our own, we were split into groups to workshop.

In the event, we only had time to workshop one each of the poems we had sent in and in some cases, only a fragment of the poem. The practice in Jenny's workshops is well-established: the poet reads their poem, sometimes providing a little of the background , and then the rest of the group discusses what works for them, what they like, what they don't like, what they might do instead. The poet remains silent during the discussion but is free to take notes. After a while, the poet is invited to join the discussion and can rebut or comment as they see fit. Then the group moves on to another poet and poem. It is up to the poet to redraft later according to their own wishes. During our dayschool, we had somewhere between forty-five minutes and an hour to work on redrafting. In the afternoon, Jenny used a timer to provide eight minutes each to present the new draft with comments on how the workshopping had helped or otherwise, with copies of the original poem circulated for comparison.

My poem was quite a short one; there was one word that I couldn't settle on and I wasn't happy with the title, but I liked the idea behind it, so I felt it just needed some fresh eyes to help me polish it. The group collectively ditched the word I wasn't sure about and didn't mind the title, though they discussed several others in the process. However, they detected a sinister tone that I hadn't noticed and suggested that I write it out in a prose poem form, switching the order of a couple of phrases here and there and changing one punctuation mark, which they felt would emphasise the poem's sinister nature.

Into the redrafting phase, I gratefully crossed out the ditched word, switched the phrases around and set it out as a prose poem. Switched the phrases round again and rewrote it as a prose poem. Crossed out some phrases completely and rewrote it as a prose poem. The prose form just wasn't working for me.

However, thinking about changing the lineation made me think about the way lineation might affect the tone of a poem. I wondered if the inherent menace of the narrator would come over better with more space, more pause, between words and phrases. Set out in three-line stanzas, with the middle line of each indented slightly, I felt the sense of something not being said was much stronger. Playing a little more with a couple of phrases, and the poem reached a draft that I'm quite happy with (and will doubtless submit somewhere, so no, I'm not publishing it here - yet). Overall, a very useful and successful day.

You might wonder, since the title didn't change, the main word that went was one I had wondered about anyway and I ignored the advice to set it out as a prose poem, how I can regard the day as useful. It doesn't matter that I didn't follow their advice - it's my poem, I don't *have* to do what anyone else says about it - but the group made me look at a different aspect of the poem, one that I hadn't considered, and that made all the difference. An article in Mslexia by author Jane Rogers discussed the different effects writing in the first or third person can have; when I met  Jane shortly afterwards, I thanked her for the article and told her it had inspired me to rewrite my WIP in the present tense rather than the past. She probably thought me rather odd ( many people do, doubtless!) but by making me think about such a fundamental aspect - narrator - of the story-telling process, I was able to think about other fundamental aspects - tense - and rewrite accordingly.

So next time you have the opportunity to workshop a poem, go for it. It doesn't matter if you disagree with every single one of the suggestions made, because if it makes you think about your poem and how it can be considered, it's worth the time and effort.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Actual as opposed to virtual blog

Just for a change, and not because it's the new year and I may or may not have made a sort of resolution, I'm going to write my blog entry in my actual blog as opposed to in my head. You've missed out on a lot of rumination and probably some rubbish, but while I warm up my fingers for some other writing, you get the benefit of deciding for yourself whether the following is rumination or rubbish. Or, potentially, both.

So today's entry is a sort of cultural corner. We actually went to the cinema yesterday. I could make some corny joke about how it's the first time this year, but as we didn't get to the cinema at all last year, you wouldn't really see the funny side. The particular irony is that we have a load of free tickets to our local cinema courtesy of our bank (long story, let me know if you're really interested, it could be a different blog) that we were given back in July and this was the first time we used any of them. The film that prised us out of the house - The Theory of Everything, about Professor Stephen Hawking. Hawking apparently told Eddie Redmayne (who plays Hawking) that at times he forgot he was watching an actor and thought it was himself. I did at times find myself wondering how on earth Redmayne managed to contort himself so convincingly and I see from IMDB that he was in considerable pain after some shots - not surprising. A brief anachronism early on in the film spoiled the OH's enjoyment a little, as he kept wondering what else was wrong, though of course, as with all films, it is 'based on' Hawking's life, not an exact representation. Certainly the amount of theoretical physics was kept to a minimum, for popular accessibility I suspect. Definitely worth leaving the house for, though. Watch out for Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking) in the Oscar nominations.

Earlier in the week was a rather different experience, a theatre trip to London to see 'Golem'. We'd previously seen 'The Animals and Children Took to the Streets' by the same company and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when we saw they had a new show out in London, off we went. As with 'The Animals and Children...', the show is a multimedia affair, with a small cast playing against, and interacting with, an animated backdrop, and with two of the cast also providing the sound-track. (We're still hoping at some point to get the soundtrack from the previous show.) Golem is adapted from a traditional tale though it echoes Professor Hawking's recent pronouncements concerning Artificial Intelligence. A clay 'man' is created to assist with daily chores and by learning more about the world about him, gradually takes on more than was required. I won't say anymore for fear of spoiling it, though it's only on in London until the end of the month. The reviews have been good, so it's quite possibly going on tour ('The Animals and Children...' did)  in which case, look out for it.

At a more individual level, I've been trying to catch up on some reading over Christmas as well, not least because my wish-list was targeted quite heavily and so I need to move books rapidly from the TBR pile by the bed to a bookcase for lending out. At the moment, I'm about two-thirds of the way through the third part of the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood. I read 'Oryx and Crake' quite a while ago and had forgotten much of the detail, but by the end of 'The Year of the Flood' enough ends had been tied together that I remembered much more. Although you have to pay attention quite closely to the chapter headings in 'The Year of the Flood' so that you know the time-frame and the narrator of that chapter, the gradual reveal of information is, unsurprisingly, very well done. The language is as usual beautiful and the premise scarily plausible. I'm finding 'MaddAddam' less satisfying at the moment as so much of it seems to be backstory for the characters from 'The Year of the Flood'. Perhaps it will all come together yet; I do still have around 100 pages to read. Then it's back to some historical fiction - I have some Elizabeth Chadwick to catch up on and several Karen Maitlands!

What films/plays/books have been distracting you from the extra washing up and laundry this holiday season? And would you recommend them?