Friday 24 May 2013

I'm in Writers' Forum (again)

Just a quick post, as most of my writing energies are directed towards a couple of entries for the Bridport Prize (only a week to go if you're planning to send anything that way).

But, anyway, I'm in this month's Writers' Forum (issue #140), in Sally Quilford's "Reader Success" column.

Back at the beginning of the year, Sally put out a call to anybody who'd won a prize in a writing competition. At the time, I'd just won the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition, so I thought I'd try my luck, and sent her an email. I was very pleased to hear she'd picked my response as one of the ones she would feature in the magazine.

Anybody who's followed this blog for a while will know I'm a fan of competitions, so it was a pleasure to talk about how comps have encouraged me to experiment with different styles and genres, and how getting results in a range of different contests has boosted my confidence. And it's always good to get your name out there; you never know who might be reading.

And now, back to the editing...

NB There's a small error, in that a couple of the competitions I'm listed as having placed in only netted me a shortlisting (the James White Award, and the Southport Writers' Circle and NAWG competitions).

Friday 17 May 2013

10 Myths About Grammar

Grammar. Everybody's favourite most-hated topic. It's back in the news this week with yet more proposed changes to the education system. Everybody's pitching in to have their say on how (and even if) it should be taught to children and at what age and why it's an outdated and irrelevant concept and why it's still one of the most important parts of anyone's education and so on and so on.

Matt Haig has written an interesting blog post on the subject, 30 Things to Tell a Grammar Snob. I enjoyed this, smiled at the funny bits, and agreed with a lot of it. But I started thinking that, just as it isn't healthy to adhere slavishly to the 'rules' just because somebody tells you to, it isn't healthy to ignore them purely because you can. In other words, it's no better to be a grammar slob than a grammar snob.

I wondered if it was a question of perspective, so I asked:

I didn't get a reply, but I was interested to see that Nick Harkaway joined the debate, summing up his defence of grammar using much the same terminology as I did. So, encouraged that I'm not alone here, I'd like to attempt to bust a few myths about grammar:

1. Grammar is a straitjacket to squeeze language into.
Grammar should never be thought of as something that works from the outside, constricting language and stopping it growing. It's not like a crab's shell, something that has to be abandoned if you want to take your writing onto bigger and better things. It's better to think of it as working from within, like a skeleton, with language as the flesh. Skeletons change over time - mine's different to when I was a baby, a child, or an adolescent. Bone responds to usage, becoming harder and more resilient when it's heavily loaded, or fading away where it's not used so often. It can be broken and heal into new configurations, but it always does the same job.

2. Following rules means everything ends up the same.
Saint Paul's Cathedral, the works of Antoni Gaudi, and the New York Guggenheim couldn't be more different, but they all follow the same rules of physics. Their designers and architects have used their understanding of the way materials behave, how stress is transferred, how gravity affects steel beams or blocks of stone, in order to come up with wildly different solutions to the question of how to build a structure. The B of the Bang, a £1.4m sculpture commissioned to mark the 2002 Commonwealth Games, didn't follow the rules. It looked great, but it was fundamentally flawed. It couldn't support its own weight, and was dismantled a few months after it was unveiled as its immense metal spikes started falling off. Sometimes understanding the rules can save you a lot of bother.

3. Grammar is boring.
This, I'm sorry to say, says more about the person making the claim than about the topic. If you're not interested in the use and history of words and language, maybe a career in writing isn't a sensible aspiration for you. Who genuinely doesn't enjoy learning, or discovering something new? I did the BBC's grammar test a couple of days ago and got 9 out of 10. The question I didn't know was about gerunds. I'd heard of them but didn't know what they were. I now know. I feel good about this, and hope they crop up in a pub quiz sometime soon.

4. The internet and texting is changing language anyway, so there's no point getting bogged down with old-fashioned stuff.
While this is true, who wants what they write to date as quickly as a tweet (or a blog post!)? Fashions in social media come and go, and there's an acceptance that whatever's there is disposable and fleeting. There's nothing wrong with this, but I can't imagine anybody being won over by a novel with writing like this:
Brian LOL'd. "That's the funniest joke ever," he said, ROFLing.
"I know," Sandra replied, "When I heard it I was all like :-D"
Jane looked unimpressed. "Whatever." #sarcasm

5. As long as your readers get the gist of what you're saying, that's close enough.
Context is key here. Getting the wrong word from the their/there/they're triumvirate in a Facebook status is pretty harmless. Being ambiguous in the operating manual for a kidney dialysis machine or safety guidelines for a nuclear power station, not so much. Sometimes a precision of language is absolutely essential.

6. Grammar is a way for the intellectual elite to lord it over the rest of us.
It may be used that way, but it's the absolute opposite of the point of grammar. Anybody who's felt themselves sinking into a whirlpool of notwithstandings, hereforths, and aforementioneds in a legal document knows that sense of language being used as a barrier. A knowledge of grammar gives you the tools to dismantle those barriers, and extract the meaning (or lack of meaning) from this kind of document. If everybody understood the subtleties of language use, it would be a level playing field. If the majority of the population shys away from grammar, the elite have free rein to trick and befuddle us with their wily ways with words.

7. Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time before there was any notion of 'fixed' grammar and he's done alright for himself.
Shakespeare also lived in a time when people emptied their bedpans in the street, the average life expectancy was around 40 years and women weren't allowed to vote or own property. Let's not get too misty-eyed about the good old days. Also, does your typical person on the street understand (or even get the gist of) everything Shakespeare wrote? I bet you a pound they don't.

8. "Alright" is not a word.
Yes it is. See, grammar can evolve.

9. Grammar is a barrier to self-expression.
Often, because dialects appear to bend or break the rules of grammar, it's said that grammar is an attack on regional variation in the way people talk, a way of forcing everybody to speak and write like they were on the BBC in the 1950s. But I don't think this attitude withstands much scrutiny. There aren't many sayings that actually fly in the face of generally accepted grammar. It's mainly a case of different words being substituted, or the order of words played around with. Embellishments or abbreviations, not whole-hearted rejection of the underlying principles.

As an aside, I really don't like the use of "while" meaning "until", in the sense of "I won't be able to repay you while next Wednesday", and I'd be happy if I never heard it again. But, though I wouldn't want to ban anybody from using the word that way, are they really expressing anything different to saying the same thing with the word "until" in its place? I don't think so, but I'd be interested to hear an argument to the contrary.

10. Correcting somebody's grammar means belittling their efforts and humiliating them.
This is the biggie, and I suspect it's the main driving force behind Matt Haig's post. It is, of course, utter hogwash. Firstly, let's get away from the word "correcting". It's arrogant for anybody to think they are correct when it comes to grammar. And it's very counter-productive to try to make somebody learn something by telling them how wrong they are. If I'm critiquing somebody's work and there's a grammatical issue, I'll try to phrase my response along the lines of, "There's a couple of ways of interpreting that; which of them do you mean?" or similar, not "Oh, you used a split infinitive, you utter cretin!". If you can't help somebody with their writing without shattering their confidence and bigging yourself up, that's not grammar's fault, that's you, being an arse. Stop it.

Friday 10 May 2013

Striking a Balance between Writing and Being A Writer

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /

A writer writes, right? Well, yes, of course. In an ideal world, that's how it would work. Writers would be left alone to do their thing and publishers would make their words into wonderful books and everyone would buy them and fat royalty cheques would arrive and everybody would have a lovely time. I doubt it's ever really worked like that, though. And it's certainly not the way things are these days.

I've been thinking about how I spend my time recently. After a couple of months with no real routine, the freelance day-job has settled (temporarily, at least) on a more regular arrangement, and it's made my writing time feel a lot more precious and finite. It's been a bit of a wake-up call, to be honest. I've found it difficult to work on my novel at the same time as producing new short stories for competitions. On top of that, I've been thinking of new ways to promote Somewhere to Start From, as well as trying to ensure that my output on this blog, Twitter, and Facebook are actually of interest to other writers and, ideally, readers.

It would be easy to look at all that and say, It's too much, something has to give. But saying it's the easy part. It's not just a question of priorities; I can't say I'll work on my novel at the expense of everything else, because I know I don't have the stamina or dedication to devote all my time to just one idea. My mind wanders, seeks out new challenges, and in the end I get so disillusioned with it I have to shut it away - I know this because it's happened already. I had to put it aside for well over a year before I could even think of working on the damn thing.

I don't want to give up on the short stories, either, because I enjoy writing them, and because I know that using short fiction to test out new ideas and play about with styles has made me a better writer. I'd also like to enter the Scott Prize this year, as I didn't have enough material of sufficient quality to submit a collection last year. That means I have to keep producing and submitting the short fiction: trying, failing, learning, and - I hope - improving as I go.

So, if I can't cut back on the writing, how about the Being A Writer stuff? Is the self-promotion justified? Is a "platform" genuinely important for a writer without even a completed manuscript to his name? The truth is, I don't know. What I do know is that this blog is a good 'signpost' to have for people looking to find out more about my writing, that Twitter has introduced me to a huge community of writers and that many of them have been terrifically supportive and helpful, as well as making me feel like I have something to offer, too, and that promoting the anthology has resulted in sales to people who I've never met, which is ace. Facebook, I'm not so sure about. In fairness I don't use my author page that much and I'm still trying to work out exactly what it can do that other places can't. I'd love to know about any author pages that work really well.

The question of whether a platform is necessary is impossible to answer. Whenever I read an article or interview with a newly published author, there's always some mention of how much promotion writers have to do for themselves, even when they're backed by a big publishing house. I doubt an agent or publisher would ever decide whether or not to take on an author based on how many Twitter followers they have. But, all else being equal, I can imagine an author with a great book and a legion of engaged, supportive fans will stand a better chance of getting a contract than somebody who would have to start from scratch. I've never heard anybody say the publishing industry is actively looking for complete unknowns.

So, as somebody writing with the aim of being published, what's the answer? I'm going to try being more disciplined, to keep doing all the stuff I do but to keep better track of time and try to ensure Writing always comes before Being a Writer.

What's your approach? How do you prioritise your time? I'd love to hear any tactics you have for making sure you're always working on the thing that matters most. It can be done, I'm sure!