Thursday, 25 March 2010

Guest post by Liane Carter

My March guest here at Zigzag Road is Liane Carter. Liane's first novel for children, 'The Chronicles of Joya', is proving a real hit. Living between England and Spain, Liane's writing credits also include a regular column for the Costa Blanca News, and articles for Writing Magazine, plus numerous published short stories and poems. On top of all this, Liane writes songs with her husband. She does the words. He does the music. What a lovely combination. I asked Liane to tell me a bit about how the process of writing a song compares with that of writing a story, and this is what she said...

"I began writing poetry at school and had the vague notion that I went to some other place to write it - I thought up on the clouds, dangling my legs.

When I learned the basic chords on guitar I started writing songs. At about seven or eight I wrote my first song, 'Momataro', inspired by the delicious Japanese book about a boy who emerged from a peach. The book, strange like me, taught me something fundamental: I had a problem chip in my brain: impatience.

If I couldn't think of a few key lines for a song, I'd search my brain until I found something - anything - to throw in to have a completed project. If I left the song half-done, I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I'd walk into things, be unable to concentrate and make myself more visible in a world I tried desperately to shrink from.

Years later I still had the problem of the first verse flowing and then the slam on the brakes from my inner genius to block the second verse. I wondered whether my ego had sabotage plans. My husband, who does all the music for the songs, told me I had self-destruction stamped across my skull.

I didn't mean to keep going back and tweaking the melody, changing the words and causing him more work. But that's the penalty for rushing, for having to finish, for impatience.

When I started getting serious with writing short stories and novels, I uncovered the truth: the ideas, my genius, wanted time to grow and take different turns. They wanted to delve on deeper levels. I had to be stripped raw with editing to uncover the gold within. And the sick thing? I loved the pain of it.

I discovered fear blocked me from that second verse: fear of not being able to top the first one; of boring the listener; of giving them less than perfect; of facing emotions within me.

The joy of digging deep and discarding impatience came in one of our songs, 'Damage Done'. Truth is painful to write; this song had me crying the first twelve times I sang it through. Yet when I decided to be editor and warrior on that second verse, to go deeper in truth, I unravelled a superior second verse I fell in love with.

It proved two things for me. Firstly, whether it's a song, a poem, a short story or a novel, expose yourself. Throw the truth out on the page and the treasures will fly not just into your lap. They'll flood your heart. Your writing will breathe and bring life into the people who share it.

Something painful that happened to me went into 'The Chronicles of Joya' and so many people have resonated with it. If I hadn't been brave enough to write the pain, many people would have lost out on the pleasure.

Change names where necessary: you don't want to hurt anyone else. And maybe once you go back to edit, you'll lose that piece altogether. It may just have been a healing process to write your pain on paper.

Secondly, I learned the incredible power of the inner child, who will not come and write her genius if I refuse her demands. She's more stubborn than I am. She's also stronger and wiser. I have a lot to learn from her. I'll play up and push her too hard and whip her to work.

She'll stop mid-step and strike. Sometimes I listen to her and sometimes... I don't. So for those of us who sometimes 'forget' to feed our inner child with play, here's a song I've written which helps me vent some frustration at myself and at her for running off. Happy writing!

Sing to the tune of 'Yellow Submarine' and clap. She likes it.

Inner child wants to play
She doesn't want to write today

I try to drag her by the hair
She runs a mile, leaves me despair

I thump my skull and shake my head
I may as well return to bed

We all live with a bolshie inner child
The genius who's wild
Who likes to run a mile
We all live with a bolshie inner child
The genius who's wild
Whose words we have on file

If I don't feed her with fun
She folds her arms or sucks her thumb

She stamps her feet and turns away
Waits for treats and time for play

But I push for her to write
Ignore her needs for some respite

We all live with a bolshie inner child
The genius who's wild
Who likes to run a mile
We all live with a bolshie inner child
The genius who's wild
Whose words we have on file

So I buy her Plasticine
Watch a film with Mr Bean

Dance around the room and sing
And watch the magic in me begin

Her genius begins to flow
She writes and tells me, "I told you so!"

We all live with a bolshie inner child
The genius who's wild
Who likes to run a mile
We all live with a bolshie inner child
The genius who's wild
Whose words we have on file."

Jo: Gosh - thank you so much, Liane, for taking the time to write this. I will never listen to 'Yellow Submarine' in the same way again!

For more about Liane and her novel 'The Chronicles of Joya' please visit her websites here or here, where you can also listen to samples of her music.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Light your lamps now for the future

I'm a fast reader and books aren't cheap. Borrowing from libraries or buying from charity shops has many advantages, not least the possibility of a free gift within. A squashed Rice Krispie is stuck to page one of my latest library book. Raisins, crumbs, and strands of hair are pretty common. But by far my best finds are two bookmarks I'm especially attached to. Both seem to carry with them a flavour of the times when they were produced.

The one pictured on the left is from the now defunct London County Council. "Light your lamps now for the future," it says in this advert for evening classes beginning on September 20th 1926. It amazes me that this scrap of card has been doing the rounds for over eighty years. It's become quite creased but is perfectly legible. I'd love to know who first picked up this bookmark, what kind of person they were, and whether they enrolled for any of the classes. On the back some of the subjects available are listed, including "for home workers": millinery, laundrywork, home nursing, infant care, and child welfare. "Travel under cover by tramway."

My second favourite bookmark is pictured on the right. The back of this one has a calendar of flower shows from 1956. "Flowers for your delight." Once again, I am wondering who was the original owner of this. Did they make it to the daffodil show and camellia competition? I imagine a well-to-do lady in a neat little suit with matching gloves. Or maybe an older woman in tweed and pearls.
Do tell me if you've had any interesting finds in your books!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Fish rustling

I've seen lots of busy bees in the crocuses while I've been gardening this week. The sunshine has really brought them out - both bees and crocuses, both. Unfortunately the spring weather has also brought an unwelcome visitor to local gardens: that secretive predator, the garden thief.

Yes, my outdoor pottering was marred by a neighbour coming to tell me about a string of thefts over the weekend. Tools, plants, and ladders have been taken from gardens along the street, and even the fish from someone's pond. I gather those big Koi Carp can fetch a good price.

Luckily our dog is quite a barker and is quick to let rip at any untoward noises. This is annoying when I'm trying to write, but he does make me feel a lot safer when I'm on my own at home.

The weather is set to change today and it looks like the rainclouds will chase me inside to finish off my current story. I can't believe I began that particular story almost two years ago. For some reason I could not settle myself to write the last couple of pages. Now, I don't know why, but it's just taken shape and I've sorted out in my own mind what it's all about. It will be such a relief not to have it hanging over me any more, and also my 'unfinished' file will be slightly slimmer.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you, wherever you are.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Review: 'Noah's Compass' by Anne Tyler

I've read most of Anne Tyler's novels several times over, so when I found her latest, 'Noah's Compass', in the library I couldn't wait to get started.

Personally I hate to know too much about a plot before I begin reading. What I enjoy is travelling alongside the characters, seeing how events unfold. So, in case you're looking forward to reading this one yourself, all I'm going to say about the plot of 'Noah's Compass' is that former teacher, Liam Pennywell, has a gap in his memory. His frustrations with this problem lead him to become involved in a new relationship and a period of reflecting on what he's achieved in his past sixty years. Will he take this chance of new love? Well, obviously I'm not going to tell you. Meanwhile all around him the women in his life are absorbed with their own day to day issues, from youngest daughter Kitty, to no-nonsense ex-wife Barbara, to bossy sister Julia. Liam is often at odds with himself and with his family - an out of step man, whom his daughters refer to as Mr Magoo.

Liam views one of his three daughters as having 'a low-key nature'. And this novel has a low-key nature too. No complex twists and turns of plot, no big action scenes, but a character driven novel about the quiet stories that make up the substance of most people's lives. This is what Anne Tyler excels at.

Fans of Anne Tyler will probably recognise echoes from previous novels. Living alone, Liam has built a lifestyle that needs minimum maintenance, a little like Macon in 'The Accidental Tourist'. Liam has a sense of being slightly absent from his own life, rather like Rebecca in 'Back When We Were Grownups'. But in 'Noah's Compass' there are also new dilemmas to be faced, resulting in a book that has perhaps a sadder tone than some of her others. The trademark humour and wit are still there, and as ever the author has a sharp eye for the idiosyncrasies and faults that make us human. I know her quirky characters are not everyone's cup of tea, but I always feel right at home with them. Certainly they are not the most active or decisive of individuals, and Liam has the air of a bystander in life, propelled forwards only by events outside his own control.

Of Anne Tyler's eighteen novels, I have to say I think 'Breathing Lessons' and 'Ladder of Years' are hard to surpass. But I found 'Noah's Compass' as satisfying as any of her later novels, and when the paperback comes out I will definitely buy it to read again.

Interviews with Anne Tyler are notoriously hard to find, but I came across this one at Writer's Digest.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Will my novel ever be finished?

Last year, along with 166,700 optimists across the world, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. In case you haven't heard of it, this is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. There is no prize as such. Just the satisfaction of seeing your word count rack up day by day.

I did NaNoWriMo on the spur of the moment. So, while some participants already had plans and character studies sketched out, I was making the whole thing up as I went along. It was a very liberating way to write, and I really enjoyed the experience. Funny, encouraging emails kept popping into my inbox from the organisers. My writing buddies and I shared news of our progress, cheering each other along in the race to the magic 50k.

Actually, I reached 36,000 words during November. Below the target, but still more than I'd ever managed to write before in such a short space of time. I felt pleased and exhilarated.

Three months on, despite good intentions, I am disappointed to admit that I've only added another 10,000 words. It's not that I've fallen out of love with my NaNoWriMo novel. I can't even blame lack of time, since I've cut down a lot on my work hours. My main problem is that I just seem addicted to writing short stories. They are so much... well, shorter. And they are also manageable in a way my novel is not. I can't seem to do without the thrill of finishing and submitting a story every couple of weeks. It makes me wonder if there are people who are naturally short story writers and others who are naturally novelists. Sprinters versus marathon runners. Or maybe I just have a very limited attention span.

Meanwhile, my novel keeps returning to the drawer, giving me a resentful glare of neglect whenever I go in there for something else. I do wish I could complete the first draft - but wishing won't do it.

One thing that puts me off resuming work on it is that I have introduced too many characters in Chapter One. Part of me is itching to rewrite that opening, but I know it's better to motor on to the end and sort out such problems in the second draft. I haven't a clue what's going to happen in the last section of the novel, but the only way for me to find that out is just to write and see where it goes.

Anyway, I've written several new stories since Christmas and I feel I am coming to the end of a short story phase. Therefore I hereby make a declaration of intent. April will be novel month. There, I've told you all now, so I have to stick to it.

If you've done NaNoWriMo, I'd love to hear how you got on.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Quote of the day

Heard during radio commentary on the FA Cup match between Portsmouth and Birmingham City:

"All he did was play for Southampton, and they're treating him like Jack the Ripper."