As much as I despise psychological profiling, I know I don’t score highly as a completer/finisher.
Nevertheless, few things beat the thrill of finishing something; it’s a natural high.
If you have woken up to Monday morning blues, could it be the hung-over unfinished things of last week that are to blame?
If I ever start to feel bad about myself, I often find that not finishing something is at the root of the bad feelings. Conversely, actually finishing just one thing can put me back on top of the world and inspire me to go on to finish something else.
Unfortunately, it sometimes feels as if the price to pay for finishing is too high; I often settle for the cheaper thrills such as being ‘tweeted’ by a ‘celebrity’:
Grammar was never invented to separate people “in the know” from the rest of us or to keep teachers and proofreaders in a work. In fact it, was never “invented”. It is intrinsic to language and fundamental for communication.
A new piece of research, published in the May 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that bad grammar is not only noticed by the English teacher or the pedant in the office but also at a neurological level by your bog-standard brain – yes, YOUR brain (and mine).
Participants in a study were presented with short sentences, one word at a time, and their brain activity was monitored using a non-invasive technique. A mixture of good and bad sentences were used and the participants were asked to mark them correct or incorrect as well as to respond to an auditory tone that was played at some point while they were reading each sentence. Thus their awareness (of errors and tones) could be checked against actual brain activity.
When it was all shuggled out, the results showed brains responding to errors even when the participants did not register their awareness of them. The brain appears to pick up and correct errors of syntax without us noticing. However, this unconscious process demands neurological resources.
Helen J. Neville, one of the paper’s co-authors from the University of Oregon, points out that children often pick up grammar rules implicitly through routine daily interactions with parents or peers, simply hearing and processing new words and their usage before any formal instruction. This has implications for second language acquisition; grammar should be taught implicitly, without semantics. In other words, she suggests that nonsense poems, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, are ideal material for this approach – syntactically sound, yet virtually meaningless.
For me, this research underlines the importance of syntax, and word order in particular. The logical flow of a sentence should be such that the reader does not have to re-read it (consciously or unconsciously). I find that about 30% of my editorial tweaking tackles this issue.
I often recommend that people who want to improve their writing read as much good copy as they can, in order to internalise the language; read their own writing out loud, to hear how it works; lead the reader by the hand, making sure that the meaning stands out from the surrounding qualifiers; and assume that if their meaning can possibly be misconstrued, then it will be.
I am ashamed to admit that I found a copy error on the back of the business cards I have been using for the last three years. When I started freelancing in 2010, I didn’t know how to use a colon. At worst, dodgy copy makes things downright confusing for the reader: at best, it makes you look like a numpty – especially when you are selling your writing and editing skills.
Here is the offending item:
I’m always recommending that people don’t use a colon to introduce a list in this way. It is unnecessary and it often leads to confusing sentences. I think that must be the reasoning behind the fact that it is plain wrong. Nevertheless, this use is extremely common. If you want to go for an “A” grade, make sure that what precedes the colon is a proper sentence. Yes I’ve just re-ordered my cards with a rewritten blurb; that colon cost me £20.
So, having admitted one of my many faults, am I permitted to share a giggle over some other people’s, from my collection?
This invokes visions of staff swinging into the toilet, Tarzan style, on the disabled alarm cord (and possibly landing with a splash of toilet water).
Here is some classic apostrophe abuse, compounded by inconsistency. If there are Coffee’s, why aren’t there also Tea’s, Breakfast’s, Cocktail’s, Wine’s, Spirit’s and Beer’s?
I was very disappointed that I didn’t see any old vehicles being smashed at the museum in Alston; I wouldn’t mind smashing a few exclamation marks, though!
Grammar Patrol! Grammar Patrol ‘ten’SHUN! Turning to the right in threes disMISS! Carry on!
Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.
My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.
The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:
“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”
Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:
“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”
He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:
“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”
Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.
I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.
I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.
Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.
Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.
There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.
“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”
So Gillian over at skybluepinkish tagged me in a desperate bid to get me to blog something.
Thank you, Gillian, you have done me a favour!
This tag is part of a global blogfest encouraging writers to let everyone in to their current work in progress. I’m not sure mine is “the next big thing” but I would like to have it done by the end of this year.
Cue the tape … here goes:
What is the working title of your book?
It’s called “The Coat and Ring”, which, in the great tradition of Grimm’s fairy tales, does what it says on the tin – a coat and a ring being major players in the life of the protagonist. Theologians may notice a tenuous reference to the return of the prodigal son in the title, too:
“Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”
This wouldn’t be entirely coincidental.
Where did the idea for your book come from?
The whole thing was mapped out in essence in a dream I had while resting on my bed one afternoon about six years ago. I often take a nap in the afternoon and this is a good time for dreaming. Soon after that I used it as a tale to tell friends on long walks. When I came to writing it down (intending a short story) it sort of grew beyond control.
What genre does your book fall under?
Romantic Faerie Phantasy (not romance, fairy or fantasy)
Which actors would you choose to play characters in a movie rendition?
The protagonist is told from the first person. He’s in his 20s and grappling with the transition into adulthood. He’s just a kid, really, who finds himself boxing way above his weight. His origins are a bit mysterious. He needs blue eyes. He is James Mcavoy!
Then there’s the avuncular “Terrence”, an epicurian patriarch who presides over a year-long banquet in his mansions, which are built over an oasis. He is Donald Sutherland.
There’s a merchant turned adventurer called Selwyn.
“His eyes were set deep in a wrinkled, nut-brown face, glowing out at me with a couple of pinpoints of reflected light that nevertheless seemed to come from inside him. The edges of his ragged moustache concealed the corners of his mouth which, by the laughter in his eyes, must have been turned up in a friendly grin – although it was difficult to be sure. Like a man who has been in the sun all day and who through the night gives off the radiance of what he has absorbed, I felt a strong glow from him. It was impossible to tell his age for his skin was well weathered by the elements rather than age and he gave off an air of rude health”.
Finally there’s the girl. She’s descended from a family that made its living from the sea and she is rumoured to have a dash of mermaid blood in her veins. I need someone suitably ethereal, oddly otherworldly. This was tricky but I’m casting Lily Cole:
Next question …
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
An inheritance was a blessing, and then a curse, and a blessing once again.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
For me the arguments weigh in favour of going the indy route.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m a year in but I don’t think I could call it a first draft just yet.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book (story)?
The authors mentioned above but probably George MacDonald more than anyone else. I spent the best part of 2010 immersed in his work and still feel as if I have only just scratched the surface. He had a comprehensive understanding of the thin veil between our waking reality and the mythopeic unseen that is mediated through our imaginations.
The story has also become a receptacle for a lot of observations and thoughts garnered from my surroundings while I have been out walking the dog so it boils down to GM and my dog, really.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
If you have ever felt like a doormat, become resentful that others have taken advantage of your generosity and grown fat upon your labours, then this story is for you. If you have gone through life burdened by the magnificence of your family’s good name or the perceived expectations of your parents and forbears then this story is also for you. If you long to throw everything to the wind and start afresh, then it is for you, too. If you have a colourful imagination and can let yourself go into a strange world, then you’ll be ready to read “The Coat and Ring” – just as soon as I finish writing it 😉
This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.
This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.
I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.
Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.
It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.
In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …