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I really wanted to take on a reading challenge this year, to try to add diversity to what I read. I looked at several I found online but none of them quite hit the points I wanted to challenge myself on. So, I decided to compile one of my own.

I’m challenging myself to read 18 books in 2017, from my list of 24 challenge criteria. I’m not necessarily trying to read something for everything on the list because I’d like to give myself some flexibility and a chance to actually succeed. You could try to do all 24!

24-book-reading-challenge

In January I read:

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins – which I counted as “a popular best seller”. This was outside my normal reading habit as I tend to go for genre fiction and avoid mainstream books, perhaps because I don’t want to feel like I’m reading the same thing as everyone else.

“Marked” by Sue Tingey – I won this book in a competition I didn’t even enter! It was weird. I got a message on Twitter, completely unexpectedly saying “you’ve won a free copy of a book”. It was “a book I knew nothing about.” Anyway, they sent it and this year I finally got round to reading it.

In February I am reading:

“The Dark Half of the Year” by North Bristol Writers – I could count this as “a book by someone I know”, but I’m going to use it for “an anthology of short stories” instead. I may or may not skip over my own story.

“The Works of John Keats” – My lovely partner bought me an 1899 edition of the Works of John Keats for Valentines Day. I’m planning to work my way through this over a couple of months while also reading other things. I don’t want to risk carrying it around in my bag at my day job.

 

If you’d like to try this challenge, why not post a comment with a link to your blog and let others know what you’re reading.

Arrival - movie posterArrival is sci-fi tale told with an air of intense realism. Alien objects appear around the world and humans are “invited” to check them out and try to figure out what’s going on. The aliens make no hostile moves, but tensions and miscommunication between the nations of Earth escalate nonetheless. But, this isn’t really a film about aliens, it’s about communication, linguistics and the relationship between language and perception.

If humans who speak different human languages perceive the world in subtly different ways, and if learning a new language can change your perception, what changes to perception might we experience if we were to learn a completely alien language?

I am utterly in love with this as a concept for a film. It is fascinating to me how people classify their world and how language is integral to this. We learn the word for something at the same time we learn what that thing is, and so the two things, word and concept, become inseparable. We think in our language.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist and is therefore hyper-aware of language. She takes on the job of trying to communicate with the aliens, and this is explored in very real detail, interesting in itself as a “what if?” exercise. However, it is the exploration of the further implications regarding perception that make this film truly thought provoking.

Other events happening in the background of the film explore the idea that careless communication does damage, whether it’s the omission of information, or the choice of one word instead of another. It’s particularly poignant after the events of 2016 where fake news, echo chamber social media and misrepresentation of facts have been hot topics. In Arrival, the simple presence of the alien objects causes a mass breakdown of society and it’s completely believable because it’s based on phenomenon of communication that we see every day.

Every aspect of this film explores a different idea of communication and language. The film opens on a montage of a little girl growing up and then becoming sick and dying as a teenager. Because of our understanding of the language of film, our instant assumption is that this is backstory. It’s in the past. Later we’re forced to question that assumption. So, the film even goes so far as to be a commentary on the language of film.

In the space of a feature film, you are lead on an introductory journey into the subject of linguistics and communication, including being pulled into the dialogue yourself when prompted to confront your own assumptions. All the while you’re following engaging, human characters (including the aliens). There is emotional and intellectual stimulation on multiple levels. Arrival is simply an outstanding piece of film making.

Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It is out in cinemas now.

A little bit of potted “wisdom” based on my own experience of receiving edits and critiques

When confronted with edits, you invariably won’t like what the editor has suggested. They may have changed the meaning, or the tone of a sentence in a way you don’t like. But, don’t get upset or angry over it (or not for too long, anyway), because you don’t have to accept their solutions.

Instead, take a step back and look for why they thought the edit was needed. Figure out the problem they were trying to address. You might not agree there is a problem. In which case reject the change and fight your corner. You have your own reasons for wanting it that way and so long as you can justify it to yourself there are no wrong ways of writing.

More likely you’ll see where they were coming from, and while you don’t like their idea of how to fix it, you’ll agree with the need for a fix. Often, in these situations, a better solution will jump out at you. It might even be a sentence that you’d struggled with before, and seeing their suggestion will trigger something in you and you’ll suddenly figure it out.

So, when you receive edits you don’t agree with, don’t get emotional, get to work. Unpack each edit and let it guide you, one way or another, to improving your writing.

On Author Voice vs Editors


What is your author voice? How do you develop it and bring it to the fore?

It’s a tricky question and one many authors struggle with. I myself struggle to reconcile what I know to be good writing practice with injecting distinction and personality into my writing.

I went to a fantastic seminar at the Hay Festival earlier this year, which really helped me explore the notion. The crux of the seminar, hosted by the BBC Writer’s Room,  was “first, know yourself, then, put yourself in the writing”. Easier said than done, granted, but it’s a starting point. The goal is to achieve “specific” and “distinctive” writing, and avoid “bland”. Bland is bad.

What I’ve been trying to do to meet this challenge is go with my gut instinct a little more. Rather than strictly following the “rules”, I’m trying to go with what I feel works best, especially where I can pinpoint why I feel that way.

Red pen editingI felt like I was making progress on the concept of author voice vs technique, but recently I had a little setback.

I submitted a short story for a collaborative anthology and got some edits back to consider. Now, really, I ought to be happy with the fact there were only a few small edits per page. I know this. I should be ecstatic. Some of the edits were genuine mistakes and I was happy to accept these, but the rest, well. It almost felt like they targeted everything I’d purposely done to make the piece more interesting and more distinctly me. Here’s some examples:

  • There were a number of adjectives deleted as superfluous. I tend to use them sparingly anyway, so where I have used an adjective it’s because I wanted to enforce a point, make something stand out.
  • There was one particular place where I’d used “then” at the beginning of a paragraph, on purpose, to give a stronger sense of a break from what came before it. I could have gone for “But, then,” but I thought “then” was enough. What I didn’t want, as the editor has suggested, was to continue the action without that pause to actively draw attention to the difference between the before and after, and the fact that the after has alleviated the before.
  • What probably disappointed me most was the re-wording of a couple of past continuous sentences to past perfect. If I’ve used past continuous it’s because I want to convey a sense of continuous action or movement! The two tenses are different and one is not inherently better than the other.

When I first started out, these types of things could be found all over my early, amateurish work, and I learned to look out for them. In fact, I became quite hung up on them. I would strip out any adverbs that crept in, stick to past perfect unless I absolutely couldn’t see a way around using another tense and I would search my work for “was”, “then”, “just” and a bunch of other “banned” words. Passive voice? Nope, not allowed.

At first it was a great way to improve my writing, but after a while it started to turn my writing into something I didn’t recognise as mine. Obviously I understand the need not to flood my writing with such things, but everything was coming out the same and I didn’t know how to inject that sense of character or author voice into it. If we all rigidly stuck to the same rules all writing would be the same.

Which is where the advice from the seminar and my own realisations come in; I needed to relax and go with the flow. This piece was one of the first where I’d put that philosophy into practice. So, having the things I would previously have hunted out myself, but actively chose to keep in, picked up on by someone else undermined my confidence a little. Perhaps I was going at this the wrong way?

Thankfully, at the same time as wrong footing me the feedback gave me the opportunity to analyse the examples. No writer can ask for anything more than the chance to think things through from a fresh angle and learn from every setback. I took the story away and went through each and every edit in detail and found a way to improve the problem sentence or paragraph. I can honestly say the result was a better piece of writing.

UK-EU Referendum flagsI am not an expert on the UK-EU relationship. I don’t know whether we would be better of in or out in the long run. Most of the “facts” being bandied about are estimates, misrepresentations or vague guesses which makes it hard to know what to believe. There are both valid and stupid points on both sides which makes it hard to know what’s important.

The “facts” I have settled on to guide me in the referendum are these:

  1. Out of all of our democratically elected politicians, 471 back remain, 156 are in favour of leave. That’s 75% for remain. Almost all of those on the leave side are Tories. I am not particularly pleased about how that party is running the country so why would I trust them to guide me in a big decision like this? If you take the Tories out of the mix it’s 293 to 19 or 94% in favour of remain.
  2. The political party for which I feel the closest affinity unanimously backs remain.
  3. The MP for my constituency backs leave… I didn’t vote for him. The guy I voted for backs remain.
  4. The majority of business leaders seem to back remain. Businesses… collectively, also known as “the economy” and “employers”.
  5. Unison backs remain. Politicians and businessmen could have their own interests in mind, but unions are there to represent their members. It is the only thing they are their to do, and the biggest union in the UK says its members are better off if we remain.
  6. Politics and business aside, the list of other people who back remain contains far more people I respect than the list of people who back leave. What’s more, the list of leave backers contains some people I seriously distrust or dislike.
  7. But, more importantly, facts aside, I know this:

It is too simple to say membership of the EU is the root of all evil.
Leaving the EU will not “fix” all the things that people
in this country are dissatisfied with.

Many people are going to vote leave tomorrow because they are unhappy. They are unhappy with the way things are in this country, with the way it is run and how that impacts them. People want a good stable job with decent pay, a place to live and access to healthcare and education services of good quality. Many people are struggling with one or more of those things and feel that nothing is being done about it.

Those people crave a quick fix achieved through change and politicians in this country do not offer change. To them, change is risky, when every four years they are held to account in an election. Instead they work to maintain the status quo while promising reform that is never delivered. They tinker about with small scale things but never bite the bullet and make changes which people actually experience in a positive, definable way. They are too short sighted and self serving.

For once we get the opportunity to choose and enact a big change ourselves so I understand why people are attracted to voting leave. It’s change, for better or worse, rather than faffing about not doing anything. I wish sometimes I could shake the government by the shoulders and say “do something! ANYTHING!”

Leaving the EU has all the appearance of the solution people desperately want. A substantial, decisive change which will address the problems in this country. But that is an illusion. This is not the quick fix you want it to be.

I will be voting to remain.

If you choose to vote leave, do it for the right reasons. Do it because you can identify a tangible way in which it will positively affect you. Do it because you agree with the principles. Do it because someone you respect and believe in supports it. But, don’t vote leave just because you are angry with life; it won’t make things better and it could make them worse, especially in the short term.

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