Posts Tagged ‘language’

I finally finished my reading on setting at the poetry stage, and this week’s book is Penguin’s Poems for Life, selected by Laura Barber.

What I wanted to pick up was how feeling and setting interact but what I got was a little wider than that.

What I took was that description is an art.  In much the same way I am studying the importance of the right word, the power of poetry is linked to picking the right language.

For example, Seamus Heaney’s The Railway Children describes ‘shiny pouches of raindrops’ a phrase that describes their appearance, reminds the reader of the industrial nature of trains, gives a sense of something hidden within them (in this case, words) and makes them tiny gifts.  All these ideas are part of the setting of the poem: on the railway cutting.

Another example which caught my eye was Walt Whitman’s poem A Noiseless Patient Spider.  The sense that the web of a small spider could be a metaphor for life, a soul, creation was rather beautiful and unexpected.

This is a good reminder really – you can be both literal and figurative in poetry but sometimes you also need to be bold: follow a thought through its twists and turns and see if the journey is worth recording!

I had a fair number of poems I could share, different examples of poetry I love, but poetry is a particularly personal medium and my passion won’t necessarily match yours.

The best and most important point though is that truly effective writing, in whatever form, is a connection between the writer and the reader. The more you are able to bring them into your world, the more trust they will place in you and the more likely they are to lose themselves in your work.

I forget to think about poetry when concentrating on prose writing but that is very short-sighted because it means I miss opportunities to improve my work.

As a result of this reading exercise I have decided to make sure I read  at least one poem a week, analytically, to understand it and see what lessons I can learn for my own work.

Happy reading,



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I have found my writing mind wandering rather a lot over the last few days, seeking out the perfect words to start a story.

It comes, of course, from studying the importance of language and the need to find the right word.

I don’t have a story, as such: what I want is an opening line.  A selection of sounds that creates a rhythm, a selection of ideas which form a substance.  A selection that say exactly what I want them to say.

But I am torn, because I know this urge to just write has to be contained in some way: I jump into writing with no plan too often and struggle to build a back story to support my beginning.

So I am going to try a new writing exercise, an experiment in control.  I am going to work at writing a great sentence, honing it and moulding it until it is exactly what I want – and then I will put it aside and start on another one.  And then another, and another and so on. But I will not use them; instead they will sit, ready and waiting, for my planning and shaping to be done.

It feels odd and slightly ridiculous to want to find a perfect sentence and risk never using it, but that isn’t the point of the exercise.

No, the point is that all sentences deserve that level of attention – and still they might never make it into a story.  Meanwhile I will get into the habit of working harder at seeking out the exact word I need, and checking for the sound of my work, in all aspects of my writing.

I am really excited to see what I can produce!

Happy writing,





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I am keeping this post short as I have a lot going on tonight, and will write more on this subject another time.

This week I started a writing course about style.  A big focus of the teaching is on the effective use of language, and how we use words to convey particular and specific meanings.

I have always believed that good writing is accessible writing.  You can be the cleverest person in the world, with the widest vocabulary and the greatest ideas, but if no-one understands your meaning, you aren’t a good writer.

In fact I find part of the joy of reading those moments when you come across a word that is new to you but you know what it means because of the way it has been used. I accept I may be in the minority on that one!

I sometimes struggle to find the perfect word, that elusive set of letters that will be the crowning glory of my work. I might substitute with an approximation, which is the best way to keep writing, but I know it’s not exactly what I want to say.

And that’s the other lesson I have taken from the course: it is my job, as the writer, to find the right word.  Readers can only respond to what they are given and however good their imagination is, it is being sparked by the words on the page. If we want to take our readers on a journey into our worlds, we need to give them the right directions.

Happy writing,




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I forgot completely that I would be away this weekend and for part of next week – time has flown this year and I have not kept up with it! Therefore this post is pre-recorded, so to speak, as is Tuesday’s. Still, at least I remembered before I left…

Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Enjoy his work or not, it has had a profound and lasting impact on English language and on storytelling. His work is still studied in schools, colleges and universities; his plays are constantly in production on the stage and have been filmed for both cinema and TV release; his phrases are still in everyday use.

I was fortunate enough to get tickets to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform yesterday – I will tell you about that on my return.

I have an interest Shakespeare, even though King Lear remains on my ‘do not revisit’ list.  Not quite a soft spot, but maybe it’s forming!

I did not appreciate him in my youth, to be truthful.  However, as I get older, and se performances of his work by countless skilled performers, with staging that has varied from the beautiful colour and magic of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet film to the sparseness of the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus, I understand the longevity.  There are so many ways to interpret and portray the themes in the plays that every time you can see something new.

He was a poet, too; I had one of his more well-known sonnets – sonnet 116 – read at my wedding, something I would never have anticipated in my schooldays!  There is a truth in the words that I struggled to find in other works: it talks not only of the joy and wonderment of love but of the constancy of it in the face of life’s battles.

In my experience, Shakespeare is more powerful on stage than on screen, but the expansive nature of a film probably encourages a wider audience.  See for yourself…

If you get a chance to see his works, do – the worst case is that you don’t enjoy it all that much, but who knows – like me, you could find a new source of inspiration and entertainment!

Happy writing/play-watching,



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Following last week’s post where I said I was stuck in the middle of my story, I finished it in about an hour the next day – drama queen, aren’t I?!

Book 53 – The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie. This was Christie’s second novel, and stars Tommy and Tuppence, two friends who lose touch but are reacquainted a few years after the end of World War I. With little money and few prospects for employment, they join forces as ‘The Young Adventurers’.  The story follows them as they investigate a missing woman who holds incriminating evidence against the governments of the UK and the USA – evidence that the criminal European Socialists and some of the British Labour party are planning to use to instigate a general strike and the fall of the Government.  All the characters in this plot, however, are simply puppets in the control of the secret adversary – one Mr Brown.

Obviously it is of its era – politically, it is vaguely offensive and the language and some of the comments are not what you expect to read nowadays, but it was my first Agatha Christie and the first time I had come across the two characters so it was an educational read, if nothing else.

It seemed clear to me very early on ‘whodunnit’, which was surprising as I rarely work out Poirot’s cases on screen!  However, there were lots of clues and details about who everyone was and how they interacted that I did miss.  That was what I really found most enjoyable – the little details sprinkled throughout that I was able to reflect on when I got to the end of the mystery.

This book wasn’t as sophisticated as I’ve always thought Christie would be but I am not sure if that’s due to the characters or her developing writing skill.

It’s definitely one to read if you’re a fan of her work though, just to see where her writing life began, and it made me keen to read something she wrote a little further down the line…

Book 54 – The Hollow, by Agatha Christie.  This was first released in 1946, 25 years after The Secret Adversary, and there was a very definite change in the writing style. This story follows a group of people whose lives intersect at The Hollow, a country house.  On the day the lady of the house invites Hercule Poirot to lunch, one of her guests is murdered…

The plot followed the twists and turns as evidence appears and is found wanting, and a number of characters seem to have motives and opportunities to commit the murder.  The book shows multiple character viewpoints, giving the opportunity to see how each person reacted to the crime.  This was a great way to assess not just whether someone was possibly guilty of the crime but whether they had every really cared for their ‘friend’ in the first place, and how the death affected them – from emotional trauma to social inconvenience.

The story is a straight ‘whodunnit’, and this time, I didn’t know who it was which was much more satisfying!

The stylistic differences between this and The Secret Adversary were significant, and too many to list, but key ones from my point of view as a reader included:

  • a constant shift of viewpoint – we saw all the main characters away from the setting of the story and each other
  • the very late introduction to the recurring Christie character – Poirot is not the main player in this story, and he arrives about a third of the way into the book
  • the way the characters exist in a recognisable reality – we see a doctor, a sculptor and a shop assistant in their workplaces
  • The language used – this book seemed much less dated than The Secret Adversary which used more slang and colloquialisms (or perhaps the slang in The Hollow was better adopted and became normal English, who knows?!)

This book seemed to be about grown-ups, for grown-ups, whereas The Secret Adversary was more like a young adult book as we describe them now.  I definitely preferred this one.

Just as an addendum – I chose The Hollow as it was the first Christie I saw on the shelf of books I inherited from my grandparents (and am aware it isn’t necessarily reflective of her other work).  It reminded me that their library is sitting unused, when books should be read, so I am going to choose my next few books from there and give it life again.

Some are probably out of print, or out of style, or politically insensitive but that’s the way it goes with books – they are a reflection of a moment in time.  I just hope they bring me a little more insight into the world my grandparents experienced.

Until next time – happy reading,




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Welcome to Challenge Tuesday!

This is the development of my 2014 (a book a week) reading challenge; Thursday posts were too long with this section added so I decided to have a dedicated challenge post instead. As luck would have it, January 1st was a Wednesday so ending each week on a Tuesday works nicely 🙂

Today’s post finds us at the end of week 10.

I’ve finished 3 books since last time I updated you, all of which refer to US slavery to some extent and were written in the 19th Century. I read unabridged versions – and that means constant, repeated use of a word that I never use and which is incredibly offensive now.  It is important to see how language changes over time – both in usage and meaning. However, I can well imagine that some people would be deeply unhappy seeing the word in print.

Book 13 – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – This felt like a children’s book, which I wanted, and to some extent I got the sense of justice missing from The Great Gatsby.  However, Tom’s annoying little brother persona was a bit off-putting. My favourite section was when he and Becky were trapped as Huck stalked the ‘baddies’; the two characters showed their qualities here. It was a shame they reverted to type after that! This book wasn’t really my cup of tea and I wonder if that’s partly because the behaviour of the key characters was so ‘boyish’, but I did like the fact that most loose ends were tied up – such as Tom’s courtroom confession and Injun Joe’s fate.

Book 14 – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – This was more grown up, until the end: bringing Tom back into Huck’s life changed the tone entirely. The main part of the story was about doing what is right – so Huck protected a runaway slave who was his friend rather than follow the law and send him back to captivity. Equally, he reclaimed the swindled gold, and did what he could to right the wrongs he had done. He regressed once he was back with Tom, from a thoughtful, self-guided person to a disciple of Tom’s. Jim suffered the most for that and perhaps that was the moral of the story: what we do impacts on others.

Book 15 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe – I read that this book was pivotal in sewing the seeds of the civil war in the US.  I also understand that there are long-running debates about it.  I have nothing to add to those debates and read the book as I would any other – from the first word to the last!

The book opened as the situation for key characters was suddenly disintegrating, and you knew straight away that Christianity would have a big bearing on the storyline.  Tom seemed overly accepting of his fate, but I guess this made him a less threatening hero to the audience of the time.  The religiosity throughout was explicit: the depiction of Eva as some sort of guardian angel was a little too extreme for me.  Tom’s journey beyond St Clare’s death was another example of how actions or inactions harm others, as in Huck’s tale: you have to be angry that he was put in that position by people he had trusted.  The neat ending for George and Eliza and their families (plus their fortuitous meeting at the Quaker settlement) didn’t work in the context of the book; it seemed detached from the reality of pain, loss and humiliation that marked so much of the earlier book. Again, I assume that the more positive ending was important to the reception of the book.

These three identified something I hadn’t appreciated before: I have a preference for British ‘classics’, probably because I had more exposure to this style of writing in my youth.  I don’t notice this as much in modern writing so I’ll be interested to see if there’s a period of time in writing when the different styles converge!

Happy writing and reading,



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I did it – my first proper, formal, public poetry reading is done. And I’m typing, so I must have stopped shaking…

What an afternoon!  I started with my newest poem, and in reading it out had a horrible whoosh of what I will refer to as performance anxiety thinking it wasn’t really ready to present.  I have rushed to get it finished, or at least presentable, and I just don’t think it’s refined enough to read in an open forum yet. I take that sense of incompleteness very seriously and it put me off my stride.

Once that was out of the way, my friend sang one of her songs and I had time to collect myself a little bit, and the rest of the afternoon was a lot smoother. The next poem I read was a very familiar one and from there on in it was a case of remembering to speak slowly, breathe – and project my voice because there were issues with the microphone.

It’s done, and I’m glad to get it under my belt, and I now have to decide if I ever want to do another!  I feel quite exposed doing poetry – not only is it more physically intimate than blogging, but it’s also more personal in terms of how I am addressed and how I am expected to behave.  It’s as much about performance as it is ability to write, and I have never considered myself a great orator.  Maybe I don’t just need public speaking tuition – I should do acting classes as well 🙂

I am however utterly exhausted.  I didn’t realise how tiring the afternoon would be, and how much it would take out of me, and now I just want to go to bed!

However, I’ll do one ‘in other news’ just for you! – I found this article about lost words, and following on from the news that twerk made it into the OED in August 2013, it reminded me how much language changes and mutates over time.  Of course some words are commonly used and will probably stay in use for centuries (the, and, at are some of the more obvious examples!) but will other words we use now?  One of my favourite words is flibbertigibbet  and I’m convinced this will fade out of use within the next hundred or so years because other words have taken over from it.  Whether twerk lasts as long as waltz remains to be seen, but it’s a good lesson in keeping our language appropriate for the historical setting of our stories.

Now I must go and rest up, it’s been a very long day!  After this weekend I’m back into novel 2 to get that ready for the end of November’s deadline.  Watch this space…

Happy writing,



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