The Family Way

First, an apology. I know I’ve fallen behind with my blogging (though if you follow me on Goodreads, you’ll know I’m still reading plenty of books), and I’m sorry. I fully intend to rectify this as soon as things get a bit less manic (hopefully by the end of this week!)

However, more importantly, I’m pleased to reveal that The Family Way, a new anthology featuring my first published short story, Elizabeth, was published today, and is available for purchase on Amazon.co.uk and .Com, or on CreateSpace if you’d rather not buy from Amazon.

Needless to say, I am very excited about this.

The Family Way

“Happy families are all alike; Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Everybody has, or once had, a family, but families vary. Some are traditional – Mum, Dad, 2.4 children – some have only one parent, some two, some many. You may have a dozen brothers and sisters, or you may have none. THE FAMILY WAY is a bravura collection of original fiction about families old and new, small and large, happy and unhappy, normal and strange, human and otherwise from the publishers of THE LAST POST. This special edition of THE FAMILY WAY features seventeen striking illustrations by Meghan Hawkes.

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Essay: Ruby Sparks and Writing


So a few weeks ago, I went to see Ruby Sparks, which as a film is basically what you’d get if you combined (500) Days of Summer, Stranger than Fiction, and Pygmalion. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but this post isn’t going to be a review so much as it is my thoughts on one of its prevailing themes.
The main character, Calvin (played wonderfully by Paul Dano), is a struggling author, who hasn’t written much since the highly celebrated novel he wrote a decade prior to the beginning of the story. The opening of the film itself sums up Calvin’s problem: He wakes up early, sits down at his typewriter, then promptly begins not writing. Sound familiar?

Now, the film offers a variety of reasons for Calvin’s writers block, some stated outright (Lack of social interaction, lack of romantic interaction), others only hinted at, (unresolved issues of parental approval, and the overwhelming pressure to produce an adequate follow up to the best-selling book he wrote as a teenager). There is no active resolution for Calvin’s problem, aside from his psychiatrist’s insistence that he writes a page worth, which he would “like to be very bad” and a subsequent sudden burst of inspiration that kickstarts the plot. And though Calvin does ultimately complete his second book, by the end of the film this is framed as closure, rather than overcoming writer’s block, and thus his ailment is reduced to a plot device.

Now, as I said, I really enjoyed this film, and while I didn’t find myself deciding that I needed to remodel my life to make me more like its characters  (Apparently I’ve matured as a person since Juno came out. Who’d have thought?), but I did feel inspired to write, both by Calvin’s character, and by the screenplay, written by Zoe Kazan, (also the female lead).

So, with this resolution in mind, I came home, ready to write. But, we went to a late showing, so I had to go to bed. Then I was at work for ten hours, but after that I could write for sure. Or, you know, I could spend an hour on eBay looking for typewriters (Okay, so maybe I’m not completely over the whole “imitating what I see in films” thing). Then, I realised I hadn’t blogged for a week, for one reason or another, which was something that I really had to do. But at least I had a topic to write about, so it could be finished quickly and then I could get on with writing other things.

I think you can probably see where I’m going with this…

It took me about a week to actually manage to sit down  and write anything coherent. Given a prompt by my girlfriend (who was sick of my moaning about not being able to write) I managed to write 700 words in about an hour. The most I’d done in what feels to me like years, and what’s more, I actually felt excited about what I was writing.  This was on the 28th of October, and for the first next two nights I continued this story, managing to keep it going rather than just running into a dead end as I do often do. At about half ten on the evening of Halloween, I decided once and for all that I definitely was going to do NaNoWriMo, so instead of continuing on with this story (which I’m still really excited about), I began writing a historical story that has been floating around my head for the better part of a year. Like Calvin therefore, I am writing again.

Now, the NaNoWriMo program has a lot of faults, first and foremost, it doesn’t encourage quality writing.  Generally a token acknowledgement is made of the idea of editing once the month is finished, but it is very much quantity over quality. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. Yes, I would be the first to admit that I am perhaps not putting as much effort into my dialogue and phrasing as I ordinarily would were I trying to write, but this is a first draft, and I’ve not completely given leave of my own integrity. Even browsing various communities of people doing NaNo is driving me crazy, because people are so desperate to increase their wordcount they are shoehorning nonsense into their stories.Yes I could write 50,000 words of drivel, but what would be the point?

I’ve written more words of fiction in the past week than I have done since about 2007, the year I started my undergraduate. People may rally against the idea of arbitrary targets, but as one of my friends said when he read my declaration of intent “You are definitely a glutton for punishment / need a structured and busy life!”  It is this structure that is helping me do what I enjoy, and while the pressure is in itself not the most euphoric of sensations, it’s a hell of a sight better than sitting, miserably, in front of my laptop waiting for an idea to magically appear in my head.

NaNoWriMo 2012

Apparently I’m a glutton for setting myself seemingly impossible goals. In addition to trying to read 100 books this year (which means, at an average pace throughout the year, means at least 8 books during the month of November), I’ve also decided to embark on NaNoWriMo.

For those not in the know, NaNoWriMo, or NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth,is a community based project to write a 50,000 word novel during between 1st and 30th of November, (which, because I like averages today, means 1,666 words a day). This requires the actually-quite-difficult job of disabling your internal editor, and just sitting down and writing, not caring about the extent to which what you’re writing is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

I competed once before in 2005, and while I did ‘win’, boy did I embrace the dingo’s kidneys. My novel that year was an absurdly naive attempt at allegory for the Russian Revolution, communism and the Irish Civil War, featuring Owls. That’s right. Owls. It was truly as bad as it sounds, so in an attempt to absolve myself for unleashing that aberration on the world, I’m trying again. This time, since I don’t have school or university getting in the way, I can hopefully try and come up with something less embarrassing. Hopefully.

I’ll post some more information about my story later in the month, but in the mean time, I’ve got a word counter in the sidebar, so if you’re interested, wander along to my profile, and if you’re taking part as well, please don’t hesitate to let me know, I’d love to share the suffering hear about other people’s experiences!

Essay: Proofreading and Narrative Voice

In my review of Siddhartha, I commented on the quality of the eBook copy that I read, which included a number of off-putting typographical errors. In that instance, I would assume that it was due to the quality of the digitisation procedure used by the Gutenberg Project. However, since it’s been in the forefront of my mind, I’ve been noticing misspellings and odd grammar more regularly than I ordinarily would (That’s not to say that I don’t normally notice, it’s just that I often get so immersed in the story that I can’t see the trees for the forest, to invert an expression).

For example, I’m currently reading The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, which features as one of its protagonists, a Hasidic Jew. During a long explanation of the history of Hasidism, (in which the name and its derivative are used many times), at one point “Hasidim” is misspelt as “Jasidim”. It’s just sloppy, and while I’m loving the book, I can’t help but think that it’s a fairly major thing to miss, especially with the technology that is available to a major publishing house such as Penguin.

However, I’d argue that there is another aspect of proofreading that people often overlook: Voice.1
I don’t mean that everything should be written in perfectly regimented academic English, rather that your characters have to speak and think in ways that make sense. Sometimes this can happen when there’s a long gap between books in a series, or if one volume is written by a different author. A particularly good example of this is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Prose was not Adams’ primary medium, and so over the course of his five books, particularly Mostly Harmless, the last instalment he wrote, the character’s voices vary wildly. This is continued in the posthumous novel And Another Thing, written by Eoin Colfer. Despite Colfer’s engaging personal writing style, he completely failed to grasp either Adams’ own narrative voice (which was at least consistent) or that of his characters, which ultimately ruined the book.

The most egregious example I’ve come across, and perhaps the easiest to have changed was Audrey Niffenegger’s Our Fearful Symmetry, which I’d say is one of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. I really enjoyed The Time-Traveller’s Wife, but there was so much wrong with this book, most of which I’m not going to go into. What’s relevant here is that even though most of the book is set in contemporary London, and most of the characters are Londoners who have lived their entire lives in the Hampstead, a particularly posh area, they all spoke American English. Not so much spellings, that was at least localised, but just using phrases that they as characters would never use, like the septuagenarian woman dealing with her mail rather than her post, taking a cab, not a taxi, and riding the subway, not the underground. Nothing big, but enough to pull me out of the book and to be honest it makes Niffenegger look like a second-rate author.
It would have been so easy to fix as well; just to get a Londoner to proof-read would have solved one major problem. Of course, the weird scene where one of the characters is perving over an episode of Doctor Who, the frankly bizarre plot twists and unlike-able characters would still have made me hate the book, but at least it would have been more technically well-written.

I realise it’s very easy to make mistakes; everyone does, but that’s why publishing houses employ proofreaders, and why I’m still a wary about buying self-published books, because for every author that’s put care and effort into their work, there are ten others with delusions of competence who haven’t put the necessary work in.

1 I guess that technically this isn’t strictly “proofreading”, as it has little to do with the proof of a manuscript, but in common parlance I think it’s covered.