An Alphabetical Brain Stretching Exercise – The sense of using Non-sense

I’m starting this with an apology, because I can’t trace the creator of the exercise I’m leading up to.

alphabet topper 3I don’t remember where I first came across this piece of word play.  I do know it’s been around a long time.  I’ve old books of ‘parlour games’ that do something similar, so perhaps the author was the wonderfully talented Anon.  I’ve tried looking it up, but that’s not easy without knowing the correct title.  So, should anyone know the origins of this, I’d be grateful if you’d tell me.

This is really an exercise that allows us to be absurd.  In case you’re wondering why you would want to, let me ask, why wouldn’t you? At its purest, nonsense literature covers a great raft of wonderful imaginings, in poetry and prose.

You may not want to write of owls and pussycats, or even a Jabberwocky or a disappearing Cheshire cat.  That’s fine, no reason why you should.  But don’t pass by this exercise because of that.  Being able to let go of rational and logical reasoning does not have to be just about the sense of ridiculous.

Exercises like this one help us to free our imaginations.  Like Freewriting, the purpose of this is to block off that annoying inner critic we all have.  Here you are not just allowed to write nonsense, you are almost obliged to.  Adults often need to be reminded how to be playful, especially with words.  This is another way of practicing that.

There is only one big rule here: No dictionaries.  That would definitely be cheating.

capital lettersWrite your name, then start to write about yourself using ONLY words that begin with the same initial letter.  You may aim for some form of sense, but obviously that’s going to take some ingenuity, and lateral thinking, and it’s much easier, and playful, to allow the words to take-over and lead you.capitals 3

Here’s my attempt:

Cath can’t count competently.  Cringes concerning cubes.  Creatively challenged, Cath calls cute canine companion.  Cooperatively contemplating clouds causes calm creativity.  Circling charming countryside can counteract craziness: certainly challenges concerns.  Change corners constantly.  Cooky claims, continuously cooling cures cheese.  Codswallop! Canned corn concerns con-captain creating caption concerning cash.  Can’t continue containing corn.  Could con-captain can cabbage, cubed?  Credit card claimants call competent cats.  Cool cats corner crazy con-captain, controlling control cars.  Crushed customers claim considerable cash.  Council catch crook, charge certain callers copiously.  Cuffs count collars, claim cheese.  Cool cats can consume cheese.

As you can see, there’s only a nod towards sense here.  You may be able to achieve something more coherent.  The thing is, you don’t have to.

What you will do, though, is stretch your vocabulary, both for words and for meaning.  Hopefully, what you will find is that while you may start out slowly, every so often the words will flow.  They may not make much sense, but try to let go of your need for rational and logical, and allow your pen to lead you.

Look instead at how wide your vocabulary really is.  Because if you can do this for one paragraph, using just one letter of the alphabet, just think how many words you must have tucked away in your personal lexicon, just waiting for a chance to be applied to your writing.

Is there a lexicon for fiction?

Tell me truly, how often, when you’re reading for pleasure do you reach for the dictionary?

DSCF5175Okay, so there are some writers who delight in stretching us, and in the past, fiction often seems to have been intended to ‘improve’ us. I am, of course, talking about the long-distant past here, when a lot of literature was intended to be read aloud to a mixed audience who may or may not have had the chance to go to school. Fiction then was all too often not just about fun.  I’ve ploughed through plenty of heavy old books and stories whose primary function seemed to have been to act as a vehicle for carrying heavy moral messages, and improve my mind and my manners.

Which isn’t to say that all old books are wordy.  I could send you back through the centuries of prose to some lovely lucid writings.

From the beginnings of literature, many of the best writers have studied their predecessors and thought and written about the art and craft of writing.  They learned not just about how stories could be structured, but how the content worked, or didn’t work.

That’s a bit of a side-track though, because we all know that fashion changes our vocabulary.  So in most older stories we will find ourselves reaching for the dictionary where contemporary readers wouldn’t have.  If I have to reach for the dictionary regularly on a contemporary read, I soon lose the feel of the story. I can’t get fully involved in a story if I’m constantly confused by what’s being said.

For me, the cleverest writers are not the ones who like to demonstrate the range of their vocabulary.  Clear language, artfully employed, that’s my measure of good writing.  George Orwell summed it up quite neatly. He said, ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’  By which I take it to mean, that we should never let our words get in the way of our story.

So here’s a piece of advice to anyone who might be struggling with feelings of lexical inadequacy, while you’re worrying about all the words you don’t know, you’re not writing.  Use the ones you do know, as precisely, as adventurously, as engagingly as you can, and you can’t go far wrong.

Besides, so long as we continue to read carefully, we will keep discovering not so much new words, as new ways to use our old words.  The beauty of being a reading writer, is that it’s an endless voyage of discovery.  There’s always a new book waiting to be opened, and we’re always waiting for it, so don’t hold back, get started writing…now.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?


Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep.  I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches.  Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.

The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold.  What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.

Take, The Monkey’s Paw.  Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky?  What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured.  Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described.  It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep.  Here, instead, is a character study.  The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.

Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’.  That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.

After that, tension is raised gradually.  We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

There are no coincidences in this story.  Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally.  From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established.  One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.

This is good story telling.  Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along.  My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another.  And the real horror?  It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.

The ending is the final touch of genius with this story.  I dare you to read it and not be affected.

On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween?  There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.

Writing what we know

I’ve been looking for Arthur this week. King Arthur, that is.  At the moment, there are five books about him on my desk, and another four about Celtic myths.  I’ve also got some web-pages bookmarked and a lot of notes – paper and electronic, to work from, that I’ve been putting together over the summer.

I like research.  I’m not sure what that says about my personality, and if you know, please don’t tell me.  I’d rather not have my suspicions confirmed.  Besides, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re suffering from the same condition anyway.

The trNellieick with gathering background information is discipline.  The Arthur stuff is easy, because I’ve a course starting in November, so I’ve a deadline.  Take away the deadline and it’s a different story.

Two years ago I offered to put together a family history for my father.  Two of my uncles had already traced the family tree as far back as was feasible, but I was interested in combining that with a family photo album that dated from the 1870s onwards.  I gathered up materials, interviewed aunts, uncles and second cousins, then settled down to sort it out.

Six months later I had become a regular visitor to the local archives.  I learned how to use the micro-fiche, computer records and filing systems.

I added branches to the family tree.  I visited places where our ancestors lived and read between the lines of the records of their births, deaths, marriages and census forms.  Some of their lives became more than just patterns on paper, I got a feel for who they were and began to imagine what their lives were like.

But out of the alphabet of files and folders on my hard-drive I needed to create the book I had promised.  It was to be a small, family thing: a factual book of pictures with words rather that vice versa.  One day, I thought, I might write this saga.  Meanwhile, I visited a printer who set me my deadline.Frederick

It was hard cutting my trips to the archive, letting go of the stories I had glimpsed in the parish registers and workhouse records.  I knew that left to my own inclinations, I could have lost myself there, chasing names and following links.  The labyrinth of facts would have drawn me on to ever more obscure connections until I had forgotten where I started.

Often, when I’m starting to write fiction, I find myself needing to look things up, to check details.   There is a saying that we should write what we know, and I suppose in that case, the issue of research might not arise.  Except that somehow, even when I start out from a place I do know, I all too often find myself writing about places and things I don’t know, but can imagine, so for me, at any rate, research will always be an issue.