Reading winners

Mad Hatter Tea Party Paper Cutting от CutsByDeborah на EtsyEntering writing competitions is always going to have an element of lottery about it.  You may have submitted a perfectly edited and finely balanced piece of writing, and still not get placed.  Of course, if you’ve done all that polishing you stand a better chance of making it to the long or even short list, and that’s nice.

The thing to remember is, taste.  You like coffee, they prefer tea, and I don’t care for either, and we can all be right.  You’re thinking, can she take this metaphor further, aren’t you?

I could digress, and tell you about my journey to becoming an up-front and proud-of-it social drinker of tap-water.  It’s had it’s moments, believe me. On a small scale, I’ve had battles.  But what’s that to do with competitions?

Once-upon-a-time people travelled miles to drink various spa waters.  Claims were made for the properties of each site, and those afflicted chose their destination accordingly.  The hot springs at Bath cured leprosy; the waters at Harrogate were good for gout and rheumatism; those at Tunbridge Wells cured infertility… and the list goes on. You downed your glass, took the treatments then hoped for the best.

You see where I’m going with this?

There are hundreds of competitions on the internet and in writing magazines.  I have a lot less stories than that, and I’m not a fast writer.  So to give myself the best chance, I need to be picky.  It takes time to check them all out, and most of them have an entry fee, so I don’t just scan the rules and the theme, I do a little research.

Sometimes, besides listing the judges, there will be advice about what they’re looking for.  That’s useful, but the best hints come from seeing what kinds of story have been successful.

This might mean I have to buy an anthology, and you might remember that I’ve just been complaining about costs.  Well, I think of this type of spending as an investment. Primarily, it seems better to spend on reading winning short stories, than on sending stories to places that are looking for what I don’t write.

Let’s not forget the other benefits though:

  • The pleasure factor: who knows what I’m going to discover in these brand-new stories…
  • I’ll have the short-listed stories, as well as those that got the big prizes, so I get a better idea of style.
  • I widen my story horizons.  There will be authors I haven’t discovered before, and approaches to story that expand my ideas about content and form.
  • And let’s not forget that buying these anthologies plays a part in supporting those writers, and the competitions that are producing them.

Of course, you don’t have to buy an anthology yourself.  It’s coming up to that time when many of us will be sending our letters to Father Christmas.  I’ll probably be putting one of these anthologies at the top of my list.

* Image:  Mad Hatter Tea Party Paper Cutting от CutsByDeborah на Etsy

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What I was taught, when I listened…

an inspector calls‘Hey, Cath, I’ve got to tell you about this,’ said Kay, as I stepped into the kitchen last night. ‘We’ve been reading An Inspector Calls, and half-way through our teacher stopped us and made us watch a video of the ending, and she completely spoiled it, because it made the ending rubbish.  I was SO disappointed: I was really looking forward to finding out what happened, and she gave us a stupid version. Can you believe it?  We actually get to read something I like, and then she has to ruin it.’

I hung my coat on the back of a chair and took my place at the table.  ‘That’s rough.’

‘I know.  But I’m still going to read it to the end, because they completely got it wrong, and I know what should have happened.  Besides, it’s a set book, so we have to.’

‘Good.  It is a great play, isn’t it?  Perhaps you should go and see a theatre version now, and get another perspective.’

‘That’s what I want to do.’

It’s lovely getting an unexpected gift.

Throughout the last three years Kay has been responding to my hopeful questions about how she’s finding her English classes with a range of negatives, dismissing some of my long-term favourites as ‘boring’ or ‘silly’. In combination with similar reports from some of my other nieces, I’d begun to wonder if my old favourites were going to become part of a specialist reading list rather than a pleasurable one.

As my gran used to say, every dog has it’s day. Maybe it is harder for children of the digital age to relate to descriptions of lives lived in the early industrial age, and classic literature will move forwards to the 1940s or later.

I’ve frequently thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t grow up with the same reading lists that earlier generations had. Authors fall out of fashion, but they rarely disappear completely.  There have been a lot of pre-Victorian novels I’ve failed to complete, and I can’t think of one that I regret, so far – I’m always prepared to be persuaded on that, of course.

In a previous post I’ve worried whether the latest methods for teaching literature in secondary schools are damaging reading patterns, but Kay’s joy in the Priestly text came from an immediate engagement with the story.  Her disappointment was because someone else had imposed their interpretation on her.  She wanted to understand the character developments and motivations on her own terms.

That’s what reading is about, isn’t it?

Stories that matter

 

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

September 2017, a phone call from Claire.

‘The ticket line opens in five days, Cath, are you up for the Cheltenham Booker this year?  It’s 1937.  I’ve got the reading list.’

‘Great, any you know?’

‘I read Mice & Men years ago, for school, and I’ve seen the film of the Hobbit – does that count?’

‘Pretty much, I think.’

‘The rest I’ve never heard of.  I’ll text you the list.’

Text from Claire:

Which 1937 title deserves to win our very own Booker? Our all-star line-up of Damian Barr, Adam Kay, Jackie Kay, Adam Thorpe and Alex Wheatle discuss A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had The Man Booker Prize existed eighty years ago. Chaired by James Walton, with an introduction by John Coldstream.

Saturday 14th October at the Lit.Fest with Claire: 1.30pm.

‘Good seats, Claire.’

‘Thanks, have you read any of the other books?’

‘Only extracts off the internet, and plot summaries. You?’

‘No.  I’m waiting to hear the outcome, then I might buy the winner.  I love this event, it’s introduced me to so many good writers.  I bought another Elizabeth Taylor the other day.’

 

chelt booker 2017

2.45pm, overheard in the crush on the way out.

‘Steinbeck should have won.’

‘Don’t you think the panel caved-in quickly at the end?’

‘I’m just going to the bookshop for the Zora Neale Hurston, first. I’ll meet you at the Hive in about ten minutes.’

‘I still can’t believe they knocked out Hemmingway in the first round.’

‘Well, does it matter if the characters are all male?’

‘I agree with Adam Thorpe, I don’t like plots to be too tidy.’

‘Not too dark though, surely.’

‘…so I’m going to read it again….’

‘What if it is a children’s book?  Animal Farm nearly won last year.’

‘Are the female characters only in the film, then?’

‘Personally I won’t read fantasy. Fiction should be realistic, not about fairies and dwarves…’

‘Amazing to think it’s really about The Somme.’

‘Actually, this is my ninth Booker.’

‘…and it reminded me of Doc Martin…of course so did Doctor Finlay, now I think about it.’

‘But is it a book only of it’s time?’

‘The thing is, this is an authentic black woman’s voice at a time when there is no black voice.’

‘That first line is just beautiful.’

‘…and I’ve always liked Maya Angelou, so it’ll be interesting to see how she compares.’

‘I can’t think how I’ve never heard of her before.’

chelt lit fest

Thoughts on recycling for writers

Re-reading old diaries, fragments mostly, I cringe and promise myself that one of these days I will have a bonfire.  One of these days?  Why wait? The ground is dry and I’ve other garden rubbish that needs destroying.

Well, there are environmental considerations.  I try to be responsible about my carbon footprint, perhaps the diaries should go into the compost bin.  It’s probably not so romantic an image to think of them slowly being eaten away by the microbes, worms and slugs who process the weeds and peelings we generate, but it’s practical.

Let’s pause a moment, and imagine harvesting the carrots, cabbages and flowers that have been boosted by a creative compost.  There’s so much energy in my old diaries that they’re sure to improve the productivity of my veg plot. Hah, I’ll cry, take that you plant-whispering, foliage-fondling (yes, there is a theory that stroking leaves improves a plant’s growth), moon-phase-sowing radical gardeners, as I sweep the board at the local garden show.  Only you and I will know the secret of my success.

Stanley Spencer paintingCan I bring myself to do it though? While I don’t want anyone else to discover the mundane or angst-ridden moments of my life, let-alone discover the unedited ramblings littered with comic-book punctuation, the diaries are a writing resource.  I haven’t exactly logged weather, politics and the latest fads or fancies, yet they’re there, implied by the activities and pre-occupations I’ve written about.

Reading them time-slips me back to those moments.  There are things I’d forgotten about daily routines, visits, the dynamics of family, friends and neighbours, that when re-read evoke how I felt at that time. Add to that the advantage of distance, which allows me to recognise an alternative shape for some of the stories I’ve recorded, and I am reminded of a favourite quote by Hilary Mantel:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

So, I’ll hold back from destruction just now, and dip into them for some inspiration.

I wonder though, should I put a clause in my will?  Perhaps I’ll revive the custom of grave-goods.  If there is an after-life I’d like to give myself a head-start in ‘the writing game’ (as Katherine Mansfield called it).

And, the gesture would be in-keeping with the tendency towards gothic-melodrama that my diaries reveal I’m prone to.

 

*Illustration: Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Sir Stanley Spencer. 

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness.

left hand of darknessIf you’re not a science fiction reader you may not have heard of this author, and maybe those of you who aren’t are already preparing to skip past this post.  Indulge me for a moment though, step into another world of writing.  Why? For all the usual reasons we have for reading.

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

So says Genly Ai, at the start of The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is an envoy for Ekumenical Scope, an alliance of eighty-three habitable planets, trying to invite the world of Winter to join them in interplanetary trade.

Is it other worlds that bother non-science fiction readers? If so, think of Le Guin as your holiday guide to Winter. She’ll provide you with views of the local customs and some of the most interesting characters, explain the history and culture through a variety of voices, leaving you to read between the lines – if you choose.

The drawing of comparisons, the tracing of a ‘proper…equivalent’, is what strangers in strange lands do.  So, we mostly follow Genly, yet Genly is not quite us either: his Earth, we gradually realise, is not our Earth. It sounds utopian, with its ability to deal honestly, and it’s codes of conduct.  He seems a sophisticated contrast to the suspicions and fears of Winter.

Winter is in an ice-age.

Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh.  The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during those thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity and other principles, but they do not install them in their houses.  Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept warm in tents, who being released get frostbitten feet.  I, however, a tropical bird, was cold; cold one way outdoors and cold another way indoors, ceaselessly and more or less thoroughly cold.

If the story were told only by Genly, it would be a simple tale.  Instead it’s threaded through with reports from earlier visitors; fragments of Winter history and the events experienced by Estraven, a seasoned politician, ‘one of the most powerful men in the country’.

When this novel was published in 1969, it became part of the feminist debate about gender, sex, culture and society. Forty-eight years later the central premise, of a race that is androgynous, and remain that way ‘when kept alone’, and that ‘normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role….do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter’, seems to fit with contemporary debates around gender definitions and identities.

Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.

There’s more though.  This novel investigates displacement and asylum issues.  On some levels, it examines atrocities of the past, but in doing so, it shines a light on what is happening now.

Le Guin’s use of two narrators forces us to think about what divides or unites them.

Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible.  How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space?  It was all nonsense…my own explanations were preposterous.  I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.

Reading back through this post, I notice that I’ve been so busy presenting the subtleties that I’ve failed to tell you it is a story of incident, of movement and conflicts.  Worthy as all of the above arguments are, the real reason for reading this book is because it hooks you.  I hope it might, science fiction fan or not.