Saturday, 3 December 2011

Letting Your Story Out Into The World

I've been revising a gorgeous little YA fantasy for what feels like forever, and I can't help wondering why I'm taking so long to complete the revisions.

This is a world of magic that I've been living and breathing for years, that is as much a part of my life as my 'real' life - a world where I've found wonderful friends and family complete with unique personalities, and romance, and adventure.

In short, I know the story like the back of my hand.

Why then am I not putting my all into it?

I used to think that I was afraid of depleting my store of ideas. If I put everything into this story, what would I have left for the next? Wouldn't my creative output be exhausted? Wouldn't my descriptions be forced to endlessly repeat themselves for lack of alternatives?

But I've long realised that the imagination is pretty unlimited, so it's not really my running out of ideas that I'm afraid of.

What then?

This week, reaching the end of some chapters in my real life has given me a clue as to why I haven't been able to complete the chapters in my book. It's a simple enough reason: I don't want to let go.

I really don't want to let go.

I want this world of magic that I've created to remain mine for just a moment longer. It's become a huge part of who I am, the person I've grown to become, and it feels strange to think that it's time to set this story free and move on to another project. I'm not sure I'm ready to move on just yet.

I wonder how many writers face this strange internal conflict: writing to share your stories while being reluctant to let your 'babies' out into the world when they're old enough to fulfil their purpose? I'm betting there are a lot of us out there...

But I think success can never come without the courage to take risks, move on, and let go. So... it's gonna be a race to the finish line, and I might take just a little while longer than I should, but I believe Isabella Amaris will be releasing her first full-length fantasy in the beginning of 2012:) Website, excerpts from the book and - oh yes, the title! -should be out very soon.

Just wish me luck in getting everything together in time. A mad dash like mine can use all the luck it can get!:)

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Monday, 21 November 2011

Book Review: 'The Secret of Chimneys' by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, one of the greatest mystery writers of all time - some would say the greatest - was one author whose works I found too creepy to read when I was a kid. (I have to blame this on my sis; she used to feed me Christie's stories when we were alone in our room at night with the lights turned off etc - and when images of dead bodies and children being murdered while bobbing for apples can be quite traumatising and scar one for life:D)

Anyway, when my interest in Agatha Christie was rekindled some time back, I found myself picking up The Secret of Chimneys  as a starting point, wondering what I would find inside. I expected lots of crime and dark shadows, villains and knives.

I wasn't disappointed.

Christie works these elements as only the best storytellers can. What got me hooked though was the addictive narrative, the humourous, witty turn of the tale following Anthony Cade's footsteps as he assumes the identity of a friend to deliver the memoirs of a foreign Count to London publishers.

That manuscript... It caused such a stir before it was even published that I felt a bit jealous of the Count:)

You see, every political party from the small European nation of Herzoslovakia wants to get their hands on the Count's memoirs, afraid of the secrets that would be revealed by it. As a result, the story becomes a delighfully sinister (yes, I too never thought those two words could ever go together:D) romp through London and then to the English countryside and Chimneys mansion, complete with political intrigue every step of the way.

There are attempted (and successful) assasinations, little gibes at Sherlock Holmes (I could almost see a sardonic smile on Agatha Christie's lips as she put those in) and, of course, intriguing personalities that Christie flushes out so very well.

The characters in the story are very much what makes the book so interesting, so I won't go into too much detail here for fear of spoiling anyone's experience of it:) Let me just say that Anthony Cade was witty and amusing, Virginia entrancing, and Superintendent Battle became an unexpectedly pleasant surprise of a character (no doubt meant to be yet another dig at detectives with the personalities of Sherlock Holmes).

A mention has to go to Chimneys' owner, the ninth Marquis of Caterham. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the beleagured fellow as he reluctantly allows foreign office minister George Lomax to bully him into using Chimneys once again as a base from which to support the cause of British hegemony in Europe.

At the end of it all, The Secret of Chimneys was a really addictive book. I just kept turning to the next page, and laughing out loud when I least expected to. That's the best kind of book there is, don't you think?

I understand now why Agatha Christie's stories are still in print, and voraciously read, after all this time. They're entertaining, witty and atmospheric; who wouldn't want to read something which packs such an enjoyable punch, especially on a dark and stormy kind of day (or night)...

Chimneys has been a cool introduction (re-introduction, really) to Christie's writing. I have to say I'm encouraged to read more of her work now, so it's on to The Secret Adversary for me!

I hope you enjoyed this short review:)

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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Don't Let Confusion's Illusion Win The Fight

If there’s one thing that should be feared, it is one of fear’s roots: confusion.

It’s quite a pleasant-sounding word. It even seems somewhat bashful in nature.

But it's misleading to define confusion in such simplistic terms.

It can be a powerful foe, especially when it comes to those with the potential to change the world. Some illustrative examples come to mind.

The confident writer reads extremely scathing reviews, believing them to be the truth. Of course, this would clash with the writer’s own imaginative vision, causing confusion. The writer dare not write anything else because he or she is afraid that future works would also not be met with success. Thus ends a possibly flourishing career.

This could well have been the story of Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, J.R.R.Tolkien and many others, if they had chosen to water the seeds of confusion.

A bright young person completes his or her tasks in very strange ways. His/her ways work extremely well, but they are unusual, and generally shunned by society. Society’s fear of the unknown seeps into our young person, who feels confused and upset at what he or she now sees as 'strangeness'. This person now begins to do things in the ‘normal’ way, and does not give in to his or her very real impulses to create and invent.

How many of you see this as the possible end to the genius of Einstein, Van Gogh, and countless other brilliant minds?

Couldn’t there have been an equally premature ending to the stories of Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi, and Florence Nightingale? Yes, these stories could have ended before they had begun. Instead, we have an Africa freed from apartheid (officially, at least), the end of black slavery, a non-violent sight of independence, and a healing dedication to nursing.

There’s a healer who loves to heal, preacher who loves to preach, teacher who loves to teach, and student who loves to learn among us, all around us and - perhaps most importantly - in us. There is also the capacity for great confusion in clashing values, cultures, perspectives and priorities.

Let us not forget that giving in to confusion means giving in to an illusion. It saps us of the energy and might to do what we know in are hearts to be right (and I’m not condoning here the actions of suicide bombers and the like). And it dilutes our power to fulfil our potential as beings of creative change.

Don’t let an illusion rob you of the reality that this life could be. Confusion simply isn't worth the claims it makes. Staying focused on your dreams and passions is a far more powerful bet.

After all, dreams have only ever been able to come true for those who believe in them:)

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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Live long and prosper, to all:)

Kirk and Spock off to uncharted worlds in search of excitement, adventure... alien sleepovers...:)

How can anyone not know what I speak of?

Yes, of course, the wonderful series that is Star Trek:)
(I'd better qualify that this post will only deal with the original Star Trek series)

Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and
William Shatner as Mr. Spock and
Captain Kirk.

Well, how on earth can I possibly summarise such an excellent, excellent series in a single post? I guess I'll begin by saying that Star Trek is a science-fiction feast for anyone who's remotely discovery-inclined.

The series is premised on fascinating journeys by the crew of the Starship Enterprise into previously unexplored galaxies, searching for anything and everything that exists out there.

And if the plot isn't enough to make one salivate (remember, it was the first of its kind; Star Wars came just a bit later), the characters are brilliant.

Publicity photo of
William Shatner as
Captain Kirk.

First off, there's the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

The original Kirk, played by William Shatner, was brash, impetuous, entirely woman-ogling, and always humorous; oh, and he could kick some mean alien and human butt when he had to.

Kirk's charm lies I think in how human he is, not too smart, not too dumb, and above all, a fine counterpoint to his second in command, Spock.

Leonard Nimoy speaking at his
panel at Emerald City Comicon
March 13, 2010, taken by Kelly Walker
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Ah, what can one say about Spock? The First Officer of the Enterprise, he's by far my favourite character in the whole series, played beyond excellence by Leonard Nimoy.

With pointy ears and a logical disposition, Spock is a mixed Vulcan-human who looks remarkably like an elf (the Lord of the Rings kind) lost in space; an elf with a phaser instead of a bow and arrow, and an uncomfortable suit instead of uncomfortable LOTR elf clothes:D.

Spock's attraction lies in his unthinking elegance, his faithfulness to logic, and his constant struggle to live up to his logical Vulcan ideals despite his capacity for human emotion, something brought out most of the time by Kirk's obvious influence on him. Being half human and half Vulcan left Spock some scars, carefully and logically supressed. But it's Spock's traumatic past and unusual roots that ultimately help him to mix logic and emotion together whenever it's necessary (read: whenever it suits him and saves Kirk/the Enterprise).

There is an endearing sweetness to Spock, a sweetness that somehow contradicts not at all with his enigmatic expressions, incredible strength, the Vulcan mind meld and, of course, the split finger salute that I am now programmed for life with ('Live long and prosper' is equal to 'May the Force be With You' in my mind).

Hmmmm, this post is getting too focused on my favourite character, isn't it? Okay then, on to the others ...

Walter Koenig played the Russian officer Pavel Chekov, no doubt a chracter introduced (during the Cold War) to signify a united world on Earth, where the US and Russia now work side by side to explore the world outside this planet.

Hmmm, speaking of unity, I've always found it particularly cool that Star Trek helped to shatter both racial and gender boundaries for American TV. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was one of the first black characters on American TV, and one of the first black women on American TV. And of course, she and Kirk shared TV's first interracial kiss.

Right, I can only make a mention now of the ship's Dr McCoy/Bones (played by DeForest Kelley). He was Spock's main nemesis on the ship, and his presence made Star Trek reruns so worth watching.... simply to witness the many humorous, sarcasm-filled conversations between these two characters.

Moving on... George Takei played Hikaru Sulu, a representation of Asia and Asians in the crew. Reading up on Sulu's character, I discovered an explanation of how his surname was arrived at by Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry - seems Roddenberry wanted to represent the whole of Asia in Sulu's character, and (looking at a map) noticed that the waters of the Sulu Sea touched all shores of Asia. Am unsure whether this geographical tidbit is true technically, but it's still an inspiring way to find a name methinks.

Lastly, who can forget Scotty (full name Montgomery Scott, played by James Doohan), the ship's aptly/strangely named engineer (apt/strange because he actually was Scottish, with a Scottish accent to boot hmmmm).

There's nothing much to add, I think. Star Trek was one of the most visually, intellectually and emotionally satisfying rides on TV, if one could suspend disbelief at the thought of pointy-eared aliens and warp speed, something I managed to do with no effort at all. The show was simply brilliant in so many little ways that many people would be unaware of perhaps until they start thinking of the world as a kind of universe to be explored with our very own danger-courting starships

Man, I loved - still adore - Star Trek so, so much, despite having apparently 'grown up' as they say. Can't thank Gene Roddenberry enough for creating a series which feeds the mind and heart so generously.

I'm just glad that most of the follow-up series' and movies - though unable to top the original series, in my mind - have for the most part given a realistic, believable take on an imaginative world beloved by so many, and done justice to the spirit that Star Trek embodied: the enthusiasm and courage to go where no man has gone before.

Live long and prosper, all:)

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Monday, 7 November 2011

Procrastination - The Thief of Time

As I sit here writing this blog post, I'm painfully aware of trying not to outline a presentation I'm giving very soon.

It's a horrible feeling in my bones right now - knowing I have to write it, but knowing I just really, really don't want to. I'd do almost anything to avoid knuckling down to that presentation outline. Almost anything. Really. I'm not kidding here.

Sigh, eventually, I'll write it, of course. I always do catch up to my sense of responsibility no matter how much I try to flee its smirking presence. In fact, I do my best work under pressure.

But why then do I indulge in such procrastination? Why am I always late for every appointment? Why do I hate the bare idea of 9-5 jobs, let alone the real thing, and end up smilingly late for work on most days (I still deliver a stellar work performance though, for any prospective employers reading this:D)?

Hmmm, I really don't know why I delay things so much.

Someone once told me that procrastination is a thief of time. I'd never looked at it that way before. I guess I've always seen my time as my own, as belonging to me, copyrighted by my goodself, merely lent out or licensed to employers, friends, family, as and when necessary:)

Right now though, it feels like me delaying my responsibilities through aimlessly surfing the net, or prolonging dying conversations = me perversely giving away my free time to that thief called 'procrastination'!

Hmmmm, I suppose that writing this post is another form of procrastination, isn't it?:) Ye Gods, this is a difficult habit to break.

Maybe if I keep reminding myself that procrastination is trying to master my nature, it will be easier for this rebellious individual to allow her aversion to authority to kick in and rescue her from such thievery.

Hmmmm, I have to get to that presentation... I really, really have to.

Time is so precious... So easily stolen... I have to guard it well...

What was I talking about again? Oh yes, that dreaded presentation...

I'd better get started.

Yup, I will, I will... In just a minute.

Ah, well... I'm sure I can fit in a short visit to some favourite online worlds first:)

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Saturday, 5 November 2011

Battling the Crutchword Curse

It's one of those things we do without thinking. Awkward silences bring forth um's and ah's, followed by crutchwords that pepper everyday conversations in an effort to fill the gaps in our vocabulary. My pet crutchwords tend to revolve around connectors relating to time - 'after a moment', 'then', 'and then'...

But, yes, I'm sure my use of crutchwords spans a wider range than this in reality:)

Unfortunately, writing - like speech - is often infected by this very same malady: the curse of the crutchwords.

Hmmmm, 'curse'. Strong word, that. But they really are a bit of a curse, aren't they? I mean, though crutchwords oil the wheels (a bit like comfort food ha), they always seem to result in lazy dialogue. Especially on paper.

Crutchwords can make a passage turn boring in the blink of an eye. The same words repeated every so often is the perfect recipe for stale writing.

Stale writing... Every writer shudders at the thought.

The thing is, writing - good writing - is crafted. It's really not everyday dialogue.

Even though the first few drafts of a work might feel like an ordinary conversation, depicting plot, character and voice on paper is very much a conscious task. Whether in terms of word choice, emotive limits, or any number of a million little things that make us tweak and jab, worry and erase, write and write and write - writing is so blatantly a craft.

Crafting involves shaping, exploring - sometimes breaking boundaries - but consciously so. In this conscious effort to craft however, a scene in one's head, so beautifully created and held, can be diluted painfully in translation.

Words used to compose the picture of one's story - the 'right', most accurate, words - are often woefully absent in one's mind just when you need them the most.

The writing process can then become one of desperation (for some) in balancing perception with execution.

This is the moment when most writers find themselves relying on crutchwords. They get you through difficult passages before you forget important elements of your mental image; you get at least the basics of your imaginative vision down before it's gone forever.

So, why worry about crutchwords at all? They seem to be a pretty serviceable tool, hmmm? Why are they such a plague in writerly minds?

The problem is, many writers aren't aware they're using crutchwords. I know I'm not. I definitely can't sieve them out of my work right from the beginning, not when my piece is still being formed, still being grown and layered in my mind. Even after a first draft is written, obvious deficiencies can easily escape me.

Maybe my imagination is still brilliant at this point with the image I've tried to depict. Unlike a first time reader of the story, maybe I'm engaged too strongly in the imaginative world underlying the story to detect its obvious flaws.

I guess that's why perfecting and re-perfecting the drafts of a work is so important to writers like me. The need to redraft often, polish often, is perhaps a need that will diminish in intensity the more experienced one is at the craft of writing. But until one reaches that 'higher' level of experience, it's probably beneficial to let a piece of writing - like wine - breathe before you visit it once more.

What I know for certain is, leaving my writing untouched for a week at least almost always guarantees me seeing it with new eyes. At this point, I can easily spot crutchwords that would have been invisible to me before.

Hmmm, how shall I conclude this post? I started out by seeing crutchwords as a curse, something which makes a writer's masterpiece flawed and terrifyingly monotonous. But I think that's only half the story.

After all, crutchwords don't pretend to be anything they're not, do they? ... Just a shoulder to happily lean on until one's writing legs have worked out their kinks.

I suppose, at their most basic level, crutchwords are merely a symptom of a larger problem: unpolished writing.

But, you know, the great thing about recognising the symptoms of a problem is, it becomes so much more solve-able than when you didn't know it existed:)

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Book Review: 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov

When I finally picked up Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, it was for two reasons.

I'd been curious about the controversy surrounding the story for the longest time, one which centred on the book's plot:  a middle-aged man's attraction to a sexually precocious 12 year old girl.

My second reason was a passage from Lolita that I'd come across in a book on writing tools; a passage that was written so beautifully, so economically, so evocatively, so damn well in fact, that it piqued my interest and made me wish to discover more of the voice Nabokov had created in this infamous story.

I guess this is where I quote the passage that caught my eye in the first place. I wonder if it will grab you and never let go the way it did me.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

These lines set the stage for protagonist Humbert Humbert's unhealthy obsession with 12 year old Dolores Haze, to whom he affectionately *shuddering with distaste here* awards the pet name 'Lolita'.

Soon, we are introduced quite intimately to the desperate, near-monochromatic world of seduction, corruption and self-indulgence that makes up Humbert Humbert's entire world view. And we are made to watch with a kind of horrified fascination as his sometimes hilarious methods to obtain the object of his infatuation come closer and closer to success.

Humbert Humbert's ruthless manouvering into Lolita's life (to the point of becoming her stepfather) and the subsequent swift unravelling of her world - and his - occurs with a deft, graceful hand.

But what surprised me most about Lolita was the sheer honesty in Nabokov's writing.

Nabokov isn't pulling any punches here. There is no pretence. This story is blatantly about the sexual attraction felt by a man for a child.

Yet, Nabokov handles his tale with the touch of a master. There is no explicit erotica, not in the modern sense of the word anyway; matters which occur under the sheets are hinted at more than painted in excruciating detail.

It's the emotional pain of the participatants in this tragic travesty of familial life that is so well drawn out. The  pain of innocence betrayed is breaking at the seams throughout the book. This, if anything, is what can make Lolita such a difficult book to read; it's impossible to remain removed from the plight of Nabokov's remarkable characters.

Young, vulnerable and precocious Lolita is gradually stripped of her freedom and innocence through choices quite beyond her control. And - in the saddest way - though it is impossible to sympathise with Humbert Humbert, there is definitely a sickening sense of fury and horror at being faced with the existence of this damned, selfish and utterly weak-minded personality who is so enslaved to his desires that he doesn't hesitate to wreck the lives of those too powerless to defend themselves from him.

Vivid and elegant prose aside, Nabokov's grasp on the dynamics of the human personality, his sensitivity to nuances of abuse, manipulation and deception that are often ignored, misunderstood or - sadly - left unvoiced by victims and onlookers alike, and his courage to tackle a subject that was taboo for reasons that are truly beyond me (shouldn't the protection of the defenseless be a priority over issues of potentially erotic subject matter?) has been eye-opening to me.

As a writer, and as an individual, I feel a renewed responsibility to speak for those who don't have a voice to fight for their freedom from abusive situations/relationships.

Lolita's storyline is one of perversity, yes, but it is a perversity which not only reveals the unreliability of the source of the story, Humbert Humbert, but also society's wilful turning of a blind eye to matters that disturb its clean and shiny persona.

Issues concerning the lack of care/protection of children is woven into the entire story in tiny, veiled glimpses, both in terms of Lolita's youthful confusion and heart-breaking need for a truly loving family, and in Humbert Humbert's clearly predatory attempts to make her his own.

At the end of the book, we are left to wonder: where was the rest of the world as this single individual systematically betrayed a child's trust in the most dissolute way under our very eyes?

Suffice to say, Lolita has surpassed both my curiosity and my expectations. Disturbing, thought-provoking, so well-written I couldn't put it down... Lolita is one of very few books that has succeeded in turning the story of a monster and victim into a subtle, personal lens on the way our world works to hide uncomfortable truths.

A subject that is so very distasteful is infused with authenticity, truth and a subtle undercurrent of blame towards those who take the innocence and care of children for granted despite the existence of predatory, diseased minds among us.

I've come to the conclusion now that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the best books I've ever read. Chilling, and written with power and perception, this is Lolita. If the subject is within your comfort zone - or maybe even if it isn't - do give Lolita a read. I'm certain it will be a book you'll never forget.

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

It's NaNoWriMo time!

National Novel Writing Month 2011 has just begun!... Well, earlier this week anyway:) I'm finding the whole thing quite exciting. I've never participated in NaNoWriMo before. For one reason or another, I just never felt attracted to the concept.

Write 50,000 words of a novel in a month, and you win NaNoWriMo!

No emphasis on 'quality', genre, verification of whether you're cheating or not...

Yes, it seems quite superficial, doesn't it?... Except when you think of those two small things we call Freedom and Entertainment:)

Not to mention the impetus to utterly destroy the awful impulse to procrastinate *shudder* that so many of us writers suffer from ugh!

This year, I find myself flirting with NaNoWriMo - maybe even going on a first date with it (haven't registered on the site yet, but the wheels are definitely turnin' in that direction!)... The more I think about it, I can see why the idea is infectious to writers of all stripes. NaNoWriMo's basic philosophy is creative at the most visceral, genuine level. Namely: Get your butt in the chair and write.

Yes, it requires discipline. Yes, focus is a must. But, well, it's so damn fun, isn't it?

You're not writing with the goal of publication. You're not writing to illuminate the human condition. You're not trying to be original. You're not even trying to entertain.

You're just trying to write.

And, hey, if your book happens to create the germ of an idea for NaNoWriMo success stories - such as the novel 'Water For Elephants' by Sara Gruen - who's to complain?:)

Right now, nothing sounds more attractive to me than NaNoWriMo. It really does take all the pressure away, and channel it into a crazy race to cross the 50,000 word finish line in 30 days. No mean feat that.

And, hey, if I do cheat a bit and apply the NaNoWriMo spirit to a fun novel I've already begun but been procrastinating with for ages now... Hmmmm, it's gonna be a marriage made in heaven, don't you think?;D

Ah, November's going to be a very interesting month. I really can't wait to hit that 50,000 word mark.

Here's to everyone who's getting plugged into the spirit of NaNoWriMo 2011!

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Sunday, 30 October 2011

In The World of John Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci"

One of my favourite poems by John Keats, one not written in his usual style either, has to be La Belle Dame sans Merci ('The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy'). It is a piece which is all fey, all faerie... And yet there is a hint of the very real death Keats was facing at the time he wrote this.

I've always wondered who the beautiful lady without mercy represented to Keats; and I've often thought that the knight-at-arms must be a representation of Keats himself, one who is so 'in thrall' upon encountering the lady in the meads (meadows) that he follows her further and further into dark and bewitching realms until he is lost to reality altogether.

Always an inspiration to read, savour and simply take you back to times Romantic (in the classical sense), here is Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci for your reading pleasure: 

La Belle Dame sans Merci

By John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

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Friday, 21 October 2011

Do You Do What You Are?

The Muses Urania and Calliope by Simon Vouet
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

First off, apologies for my short hiatus from my blog!:) It's not blog fatigue, I assure you, that's prompted my virtual absence. The world outside this one simply called more fervently than usual these past few months; I had to take a break until things quietened down a bit.

So, what had me running over to post my thoughts today? A small movie called 'Along Came A Spider':)

A suspense/mystery film based on the James Patterson novel of the same name, 'Along Came A Spider' is a movie that I've watched umpteen times through the years. Can't quite tell you why it tickles my movie-watcher's taste buds....

Maybe it's the superb Morgan Freeman (who plays profiler Alex Cross). Who could resist staying glued to the sight of Freeman as he walks or talks or stares thoughtfully into space?:)

Or maybe it's the classic game of cat and mouse that ensues once all and sundry attempt to trace the whereabouts of Megan Rose, the kidnapped daughter of a senator in the movie.

Or maybe 'Along Came A Spider' is simply a movie that's skilfully crafted, in all senses of the word.

This time though, it wasn't actors/plot/craft that made their usual impression on me. No, it was a piece of dialogue that stood out.

I hadn't noticed this bit of dialogue in my previous viewings. I must have heard it a thousand times by now, but I probably wasn't really listening, if you know what I mean.

Alex Cross and Special Agent Jezzie Flannigan are having a casual conversation in the middle of the kidnapping investigation. And here's the bit that made me perk up:

Alex: You do what you are Jezzie.
Jezzie: You mean you are what you do.
Alex: No, I mean, you do what you are. You're born with a gift. If not that, then you get good at something along the way. And what you're good at, you don't take for granted. You don't betray it.
Jezzie: What if you do, betray your gift?
Alex: Then you betray yourself. That's a sad thing.

'You do what you are'. Hmmmm, I'd never really thought about it that way before. 'You are what you do' is the more common understanding, isn't it? Seems to make so much sense too. But it often felt like a false statement to me! I just could never put my finger on why it rang false. What Alex Cross said put everything into perspective.

You do what you are! There is an intrinsic, real, utterly you 'you' that finds its way into a career/life path! If you flip this somewhat: there is a career out there that is made for who you are, if you have the conviction to find it and stay true to it!

You know, I wish I'd gotten my head around this concept way, way back when. I'm sure I would have had a lot more conviction in pursuing my passions if I had been encouraged to not only find out who 'I' was, but also find out what 'I' was gifted to do, and actually stay loyal to my 'gifts'.

I guess the point of confusion though lies in finding out who you really are to begin with. How do you do that? Through life experiences? The help of those you meet along the way? The devotion to a path of faith?

Life's full of variables, isn't it?

Despite the mix of everything external that can bombard and mold our inner selves however, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that each of us have individual natures. Personalities that are uniquely ours. Personalities that come with their own foibles and eccentricities, but also their own truths.

And the older I get, the more I believe that our passions are a reflection of these truths.

Passion may not be an exhaustive indicator of who we are, for sure, let alone a consistent one. But when we do know we're passionate about something - know in our bones that it's a big part of our very nature, a huge contributor to our joy in life - Alex Cross's bit of dialogue becomes pretty relevant, doesn't it?

It openly advocates us giving our inner passions a vote in deciding what any of us want to do for a living.

Not all the votes. Just a single vote. A small, marginalised but hopeful voice in our decision-making processes. Quite a fair, reasonable idea, isn't it?:)

Ack, but who said life's fair? Or reasonable! In the grand scheme of things, giving your passion a legitimate voice seems almost revolutionary! That I - and no doubt many others - could feel this way about our dreams says a lot. I reckon most of us have so many obligations, you see, that our voice of passion gets drowned out very quickly; obligations beyond our control that are strong enough to push us off the platform of our passion along the way. At the risk of sounding cliched, I must say that holding on to your dreams can be a difficult thing to do if it risks your ability to put food on the table every day.

But, you know, life's often far too short. And security can never really be guaranteed, can it? Not in any meaningful way.

If one sees security as something inconsistent/unpredictable in its own right... Well, somehow passion isn't such a disadvantageous commodity to cultivate anymore! To allow your passion some leeway to push and prod you, infiltrate whatever you're doing (secure or not) and make it all the better for such infiltration... this is surely one of the more enjoyable secrets to 'success' in our far too unpredictable world, don't you think?:)

When I mix working and writing, studying and working, writing and studying - basically any two things that are secure or passionate in their own right, often to the point of mutually exclusivity, things can get complicated. You don't sleep much. You become an insomniac writer, in effect. You sacrifice nights out to ensure you're able to pay the bills and indulge in your writing life at the same time. You sacrifice time that could be spent with friends and family, watching a movie or simply sleeping, all to keep up with warring worlds of reality and imagination, trying your best not to tear in half along the way.

It all seems very messy at the best of times. And the rewards for leading the 'double life' of an insomniac writer can seem a long time in coming.

Sometimes, you wonder if it's worth it at all.

But the more I think about it, if one strategises hard enough, prays hard enough - and yes, crosses one's fingers often enough:) - maybe security and passion can co-exist somehow without jeopardising each other's existence.

What say you? Is that possible? Especially for those dreaming of making it in the world of the creative arts without sacrificing a comfortable life for ourselves and our families?

I sincerely hope, pray and cross my fingers that it is:)

On that note, here's to chasing dreams, staying true to oneself, and maybe - just maybe - being given the opportunity to successfully do what you are, wherever you might be in this mixed-up, unpredictable world of ours, without sacrificing life's precious, memory-making moments along the way:)

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Monday, 22 August 2011

Why Writing Is A Marathon Game, Not A Sprint

When I was a kid, I remember hearing a parable about the Japanese bamboo. Yes, Japanese bamboo:)

Bear with me.

Basically, the story went like this: A woman decided to grow some Japanese bamboo in her garden. She planted the seeds, and started watering the ground. Nothing happened in the first year. Or the second. Ditto the third. By the fourth year she was resigned to failure but stubbornly hopeful. By the fifth year, she was way beyond frustrated, and entering into the giving-up phase dreaded by gardeners everywhere *shudder*.

But - for no reason other than that aforementioned stubborness - she finally thought: 'what the heck, I've been watering those darn seeds this long, why not finish the fifth year on a hopeful note?'

And thus was born the parable to crown all parables. For - at the end of that fifth year - the Japanese bamboo began to grow!

That is an understatement.

It actually shot up towards the sky, in a miniature 'Jack and the Beanstalk'-beanstalk kind of way; that bamboo grew a whopping 80 feet in 6 weeks!

Now, our determined heroine's neighbours were very impressed by this tall bamboo lording it over its shorter relatives on the street with such casual arrogance. They vociferously complimented our heroine on growing such a plant of 80 feet in a mere 6 weeks (secretly, of course, they were hoping she'd give them some tips on how she'd accomplished this miraculous feat).

Our astute heroine corrected their assumptions at once. That Japanese bamboo grew 80 feet, she said kindly, not in 6 weeks but in 5 years and 6 weeks.

Get it?

Lol yeah, it's another of those 'persevere and you shall prevail' stories:)

What can I say? I'm really a big believer in determination winning the day. The tortoise and the hare, anyone? No matter how much talent someone has, someone with less talent who works harder than their talented counterpart will someday - not only draw even with him - but probably surpass him.

Heck, talent itself is probably tied very closely to how much practice a person puts into their field of interest in the first place. Practise makes perfect, after all. Hmmm, I'm full of cliched sayings today, eh? They're true though:)

Writers who see their job as a marathon game instead of a quick sprint will ultimately sustain writing as a bona fide paying career in the long-term.

Not so the sprinters of our writerly world - at some point, they're gonna lose the fight. They won't have the stamina, nor stomach, for a long engagement with that blank sheet of paper - not when the rewards for their hard work don't seem sufficient.

But, you see, some rewards are just a long time in coming. Once they arrive, they more than make up for the investment of time and effort put into reaping those rewards.

My surfing days of late have brought me into contact with lots of information about writing, talent and determination. Much like the 'bamboo tree' parable, what I've read so far fits in perfectly with the concept that investment in practising your craft makes all the difference between realising talent/potential and causing it to stagnate.

For those who'd like to read more on the value of putting in the time to build talent, you might enjoy the following blog posts: Dean Wesley Smith's 'Talent is a Myth', Amlokiblogs' post on the need for 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for one to achieve success, and the many valuable points raised in David Gaughran's post 'Word-of-Mouth In Action', including the need for writers to keep producing work in order to have a lengthy career in the publishing world.

Before I tuck in for the night, I'd like to make one thing clear: I do believe that there is such a thing as talent and that it is an important ingredient for success. But I also believe that someone who's apparently not talented in a certain craft can stimulate or build talent by exercising their interest and drive to acquire the skills needed to exercise that craft.

At the end, more important than talent is the determination to push through whatever challenges are thrown in the way of your dreams and - quite simply - working your butt off to achieve 'em. Hmmmm, now, if only I can follow my own advice...:)

What do you think? Does talent trump hard work? Or vice versa? And would knowing the answer to these questions help any writer (or artist, really) to achieve success in their chosen profession?

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Thursday, 4 August 2011

More Rhyme Whisperer Goodness - 'As the Moon and the Sun'

My current immersion in literature of many genres and times - and the state of mind produced by this exposure to a more artistic environment than usual- has made me think of a time not too long ago, one that produced some of my better pieces of poetry.

'As the Moon and the Sun' has become one of the most popular of my poems. It was written about seven years ago. At the time, it was just another poem; one I enjoyed writing, but just another poem.

I've since realised how valuable this poem is to me, how much importance I've always placed on the uniqueness of the individual. And the fact that inspiration can find us more easily if we just accept ourselves for who we really are.

Whenever I feel a bit lost or overwhelmed by people or circumstances, or whenever something good happens because I decide to take a risk and trust my own judgment instead of giving in to those niggling doubts and fears of failure that can assault our senses on the best of days, this is the poem that always comes to mind.

It reminds me that it's important to give oneself space and time to appreciate one's own mind and ways - and that it's smart to seek inspiration and live life to the fullest as an individual as much as someone who's part of any kind of community.

It doesn't diss the value of being with another, I think, but perhaps it's a reminder that the individual should not be neglected in the pursuit of societal goals or ideals.

For those who need that boost of indivualism right now (with perhaps a touch of the romantic thrown in to sweeten the pot), I hope 'As the Moon and the Sun' strikes a chord with you too:

‘As the Moon and the Sun’

Don’t give me too many prizes,
Or I might forget I knew your kiss,
Just touch me as you did this morning,
And forgive me as you were forgiv’d.

Don’t shower me with such coy shyness,
Life’s own nature is too short,
Just speak, and speak out very loudly,
My mind can’t love what’s never thought.

And comfort me each time I falter,
As I comfort you for your own sake,
But, forget the seeking of my glory,
Forget the path that I should take.

The only road that you should travel,
Is the one that’s meant for you,
Do not mistake our living union,
For a union of one heart; ‘tis two.

Fly the way the wind is blowing,
But steer it as you ride its’ wave,
And if our fingers meet upon it,
Do not hold so tight they break.

We might be one when we’re together,
But we are two when we’re apart,
And God’s plan to so unite us,
Can never work with half-played hearts.

Remember, thread and needle’s working,
Would never create a single stitch,
Unless they learned the rhyme and reason,
Of differing in their union’s reach.

So spread your wings and fly forever,
And as you fly, so too will I,
And we shall still turn to one another,
Under Heaven’s one brilliant sky.

For each sky holds in its’ blue grasp,
And even in its’ grey,
A sun of closed eyes at night,
And a moon that sleeps by day.

Each giving light for its own reason,
Each meant for purpose divine,
But neither getting in the glimmering path,
Of the other’s celestial design.

So let us not forget this truth,
We are two although we are one;
And the better one we shall become,
If we lived as the moon and the sun.

(Note: For those who'd like to read more of my poems, do check out my poetry ebooks. 'As the Moon and the Sun' is included in two of them: 'As the Moon and the Sun', and the longer anthology, 'Just Imagine'.)

Goodnight, and happy reading:)

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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A path less travelled...

As August 2011 begins, I can't help thinking that this has been a mad half a year - full of ambition and ideas, thoughts of nature and the elements and art and artists, and all as starry and dark as Van Gogh's beautiful painting, 'The Starry Night'.

Why such a mad half a year? Well, I'd finally taken time off to pursue my studies:)

Yes, I've been quite jobless lately, and studying William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to boot:)

It's been fun so far. But while it's been crazily good not to have to wake up early every day and hurry off to work, I have to say it was really disorienting in the beginning to become a student again.

I'd always suspected that I'd come to rely far too much on the social outlet of work to provide me my sources of inspiration. And darn it, my suspicions were proven true so fast!

Left to my own devices, I found myself feeling quite lost. And pretty unmotivated to get new writing out.

But family and friends were there (thankfully!), as were interesting classes on authors I've neglected to read. Studying them is a humbling, humbling process btw, one which has made me realise just how ignorant a writer I am... and how much room there is for any writer to learn and grow.

And though the quiet day to day can be really uninspiring a context for writing or studying or anything, really, the solitary aspect of being a writer and student has had its benefits.

The reason I wanted to take this time off for myself in the first place was simple: I needed to surround myself with an environment that would stimulate artistic growth and good literary work. My day to day job before this was one that wasn't too hectic, but it was extremely dry and dull for me. It wasn't a 'painful' job, but it wasn't passionate either. It was simply - comfortable.

Only, being too comfortable can be quite hazardous to creativity, can't it?

Every single day, I could feel the pull of being a writer thudding deep inside me. But I was unable to give that imaginative passion free rein.

Even when I did take the time to sit down for hours and write - enjoying myself hugely in the process - I became aware of an urgent, wistful whisper playing at the back of my mind. It was a kind of warning that, if too much time passed, my writerly self would simply vanish without a backward glance beneath the quiet demands of my comfortable job.

The thought scared me. I loved writing too much. I wanted to become a successful writer too intensely to simply give up that dream without a fight. I just wasn't sure if the fight was one I was equipped to win. This doubt ended up diluting much of my desire to make it as a writer - I thought that failure to make a living at the writing trade would be the ultimate defeat. Faced with defeat, I simply gave up trying (a curse of the perfectionist, if you will).

But the desire to write can be a stubborn, obsessive one, and this time I'm glad that obsession has had a positive turn to play for me. Basically, I was faced with the choice of carving a strong career path that didn't involve writing, or taking the chance to chase my dreams and make them happen. I knew that something in my life needed to change drastically if I were to choose the latter path. But enough time had passed that, emotionally, physically etc, I was confident enough to take the plunge.

Doing something drastic is different for everyone, of course, and comes in many guises. For me, the drastic  change to my world manifested in the risk I took to leave behind a secure job so that I could further my studies in literature and reignite my passion for storytelling.

In taking this time off  - a time off that I've worked hard for many years to finance btw, which makes it taste all the sweeter:) - I've found my creativity growing in leaps and bounds. In fact, my initial hopes in this respect were quickly exceeded!

Not only has reading works of nineteenth century Romantics and debating literary theory  stimulated many, many thoughts creative - it's been an added bonus that exposure to works self-published by writers of old (and which subsequently went on to become classics) gradually influenced me towards entering the world of indie/self-publishing.

Now, a multitude of my stories/poetry have been sent out into the world. And they are actually finding an audience! What more could a writer hope for?:) I might not be the next millionaire writer out there - though I really hope that happens! - but knowing my audience exists is a huge motivator for my writer's soul:)

I suppose the question of the day is: How do you know when the right path has been taken, when the right step has been made in any endeavour?

Answer: You don't.

The important thing is, you have to follow your heart, dig in to acquire the skills necessary to make what you do the best it can be, and hope it all works out. If you must, have a back up plan. But make sure it is the back up, and doesn't become the only plan without you realising it/because you fear failure (which was my bugbear for the longest time).

Hmmmm, in the spirit of taking risks and paving paths that are often easily dismissed, I'm reminded of a well-known poem that's always been one of my favourites. I'm sure many of you love it as well. It captures a kind of magic - the magic of the moment if you will - promising that if you follow its shadowy trails, certain paths can change your life forever. I've loved Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken' since, well, forever! And I hope you enjoy it too:) -

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

by Robert Frost

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Friday, 29 July 2011

Rhythm in poetry - a touch of the Rhyme Whisperer

After writing one of my last posts (Rhythm of Writing), it occured to me that I could have been neglecting rhythm in my prose because I started out as a poetry writer.

The rhythm in my poetry came pretty naturally, you see. Which is why I reckon I'd gotten the silly idea that such rhythmic prowess would translate instantly to my prose. Didn't happen, of course (big surprise:)).

But I shall not give up! This is merely yet another element for me to craft to perfection from now on. Somehow, I'll do it:)

In the meantime, after a fantastic dinner with a friend who ignited thoughts poetic:), do have a taste of my Rhyme Whisperer side.

'Just Imagine' is one of my favourite poems in the Rhyme Whisperer series (available in both 'As The Moon And The Sun' and the longer anthology 'Just Imagine'). It's only one among a variety of poetic styles and themes in my work, but it employs a particular trick of rhythm that one reviewer was quick to notice and appreciate:)

I hope you enjoy it as well:)

Just Imagine

Just imagine,
Random thoughts, in random tone,
With paintings sure as painter’s own,
Large manor house and servant’s grave,
With battlements and eager knave,
Great forests green, with streams as deep,
As dryads falling to their sleep,
Winged dragons’ snare, and crying wren,
For fallen kings, and fallen friends,
The erstwhile scamp, and roguish eye,
Accompanied by rascal’s ploy,
Steps down the Earth, and through the roof,
Past doorways to Egyptian tombs,
Sweet roses red, and poisoned fruit,
As sharp as note on crystal lute,
Wine amber-shine, and perfect set,
For dining halls and ballroom step,
Fine waistcoats worn with filigree,
To rival dukedom’s ennui,
Of wolves galore, and caves of gold,
Entrancing all with love untold,
Of warlike fiends, brave princesses,
Merry foes brandishing cutlasses,
Then sorcery, and magic lights,
To warm a stranger’s smoking-pipe,
Whose smoke will turn to genie’s flick,
Enchanting all with spell and trick,
Talking trees and moonlit seas,
To frame a merchant’s legacy,
Sorry states of turning fates,
That speak of strange, time-turning gates,
Mirages claiming watering grounds,
With bandits hoarding jewels newfound,
There’s shrinking of house,
And faltering muse,
And portraits with eyes,
That do willingly move,
Knives sharpened with glee,
To fell wrong enemy,
And black capes in the night,
With adventures to find,
Grand visions of wealth,
Tall, powerful elves,
With portals to moons,
And spindle-like spoons,
And as quick as you look,
A sight of gold hook,
Going in circles,
With green barnacles,
Hiding in pirate’s inn,
Just imagine.

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Monday, 25 July 2011

The Impact of the Internet and Social Media on Creativity

For the past month or so, I've been trying to amp up my presence online. As a marketing tool or a means of gaining information on the publishing industry, the Internet (and social media) has been invaluable. But at the same time, I've noticed a marked downward curve in my creative output.

It's tricky, this business of being a writer. Things are moving very fast. Or at least, they seem to be moving fast when you want to get your name out there. For this reason, I think most writers feel the pressure to utilise all avenues and forums which might bring one visibility or knowledge about visibility. And what greater forum is there than the World Wide Web (with its related media)?

I can't say that the Web's negative effects outweigh its benefits for everyone. That won't happen to individuals who are careful and deliberate about the way they spend their time online. But this simply isn't as easy to do as it sounds. Especially if being online is an acitivity that can turn addictive to certain personalities (such as mine).

I was enjoying my time online until pretty recently. Despite the sometimes tendency of online communities to have their moments of tension (blogged about here), I've had good conversations, learned a lot, and gained useful knowledge on online tools for both communication and marketing. This blog is one of the best things that has come out of my time online. Coming across gorgeous blogs such as those featured in my blogroll (and many others) was another great experience.

The problem was, despite the benefits to all these experiences, I became aware of the adverse change to my attention span (it became frighteningly short), I developed the tendency to experience mood swings when I was away from the Internet/Social Media, and the need to establish a strong, unique voice in the online world became absurdly important to me - regretfully, even at the expense of establishing a voice in the 'real' world.

And I shouldn't forget about the fear I developed that not interacting online would make people who'd just come to know me forget all about me. Or that personal & professional connections built might just collapse if I wasn't there to maintain them every odd hour.

Given the above, it's no surprise that this online/social media business began to feel a lot like an addiction to me; an unhealthy addiction.

It was an addiction that was making me spend less time with friends and family, while keeping me up at night when I should have been investing in sleep so that I could wake up fresh the next day to edit my manuscript.

Hmmm, just look at the way I coined that sentence. 'Investing' in sleep. As though sleep shouldn't simply come naturally every night - it should.

Oh, and - this was the one thing I foolishly didn't expect - I began to lose that wonderful inner resource that is the writer's mojo: my creativity.

The imagination is a mysterious and remarkable thing. It stimulates creativity and allows writers to paint the most astonishing and marvellous scenes down in words. But the process isn't a clear-cut one by any margin. For the creative imagination to work, one requires time and effort and well... mojo.

And - for me at least - I know my creative imagination works best when it's given time to breathe and think and just be.

Preferably with some slow music in the background, or even that heavenly nectar that prompts the imagination into life - silence.

You might think that interacting online doesn't equate to noise, but you'd be mistaken. My head has been buzzing with conversations started that have yet to be finished in forum/comment threads, blogs to visit that I forgot to visit and have since been popping up in my mind's eye like unnatural little memory bank reminders, stats on visitors to this blog/readers sampling my books that I simply have to check every odd hour, and sheesh a thousand and one little online items that are totally irrelevant to creativity if I just paused to think about it.

But you see, there is no pause if you're addicted to worlds online. There is just the noisy buzz of continuous communication and interaction trying to capture your attention and your words. Hmmmm, I feel exhausted just typing that, thinking about it...

It's amazing how this can happen to a previously productive and happy writer who could sit down in one place for nigh on 6-8 hours each day for seven days a week (while working full-time) and simply, quietly, WRITE.

Now, most of my writing seems invested in blog/forum comments (which is fine if I was quick with them, but I really take a long time to compose comments. Mostly because I take a ridiculous amount of time to ensure I don't accidentally offend anyone out there who might be reading my work).

This is a sad state of affairs, and one which disturbs me deeply.

Simply put, my online presence is something I've been maintaining pretty often when what I should actually have been maintaining this whole time is my writing output.

After much thought, I've come to the conclusion that - this blog (and professional material) aside - I should take time off the Internet/social media. Reading others' blog posts and commenting on 'em is fine as long as it's done with thought and care for my writing schedule. But otherwise, I would be an idiot to throw away the gift that is writing for the high that addiction to online tools and material/social media gives me.

Reading the post 'Food For Thought' on Shrinking Violet Promotions was btw one of the deciding factors to make me limit my time online. The post (and its fantastic links) answered why and how addiction to the Internet/Social Media works, and why it can harm a writer's creativity/productivity. The dangers of intermittent reinforcement, not to mention the results of an experiment by a writer which pointed to the lack of any strong, tangible benefits that social media in particular can bring to writers, were brought home with a vengeance.

The Food For Thought post I mention above really made me cringe at the thought of all those hours wasted not writing. Focus and commitment on completing content (the actual stories) simply has to take priority to any other activity online from now on. It's definitely time to reassess my priorities and restructure my daily schedule with the goal of becoming a happy and productive writer again.

To all writers out there, if you're still thinking twice about the benefits of limiting your time online, I can only repeat a pertinent question that Joe Konrath asked his blog readers the other day (and which all writers should in fact be asking themselves frequently if they want to get anywhere in this industry): Are You Writing?

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Friday, 22 July 2011

The Rhythm of Writing

One of the most useful pieces of writing advice I've ever received came in the form of a post on The Writer's Circle site earlier this week. In 'Writing Advice: The Danger of Five Words', Gary Provost was quoted to illustrate the benefits of employing rhythm in writing.

Provost's words were so eloquent in both content and execution that I simply have to reproduce the passage here for you to read:

"This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals- sounds that say listen to this, it is important."

The beauty of Provost's advice is that it demonstrates exactly what it's trying to say. For me - a writer who often struggles with long-windedness - it was eye-opening to witness the creation of a strong rhythm by the varying of sentence length. It was a kick in the pants moment for me to register just how strongly rhythm can enhance the effects of a particular scene, let alone draw in a reader.

It was something of an ironic revelation. I've written poetry since - well - forever. So, rhythm and its effects were not something alien to me. For some reason though, my appreciation of rhythm didn't translate to my novels. I have no idea why. Maybe I put too much importance on the play by play duplication of scenes running in my head. Whatever the reason, my novels definitely suffered as a result.

Provost's passage had its effect though. The huge influence rhythm has over any kind of writing was something I simply couldn't ignore anymore. I've been editing my fantasy manuscript with new eyes as a result. Honestly, I can say the piece is much better now than it has ever been.

I don't know how rhythm works for every writer though, and would love to get more perspectives on this. Do other writers find that being conscious of creating rhythm has made a huge difference to the quality of their work? And do they think something like this comes naturally or can be developed with practice?

Also, I wonder if readers out there would like to see more rhythm in the stories they read? If so, would this apply only to particular genres or across the board? Does every kind of writing benefit from containing a strong rhythm within its wordplay?

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

My Latest Guilty Pleasure - ITV's 'Lost in Austen'

Ah, she's done it again... Somehow, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has found its way into yet another adaptation (on ITV this time). As heretical as this fantastic version of the story is, I'm absolutely loving it!

The show's protagonist, Amanda Price, is a gal living in our totally unromantic modern world. Often curled up on the couch in her small flat, with a deadbeat boyfriend, and a rather familiar obsession with Darcy and the Bennets *ahem*, most of us would find her pretty relatable.

That is, until she finds herself switching places with Elizabeth Bennet via an 'Alice in the Wonderland'-like doorway in her flat.

Courtesy of this remarkable event, Amanda has to adapt to an unexpectedly un-romantic life as a single woman living in the story's 19th century setting. The only problem is, she also seems to be in danger of throwing the original Austen storyline into complete disarray by her very enthusiastic (and hilariously confused) presence.

We're treated to some beautiful decor in the show. But what I'm loving most at the moment is the lovely tongue-in-cheek dialogue that seamlessly switches between the language of the 19th century and Amanda's very 21st century thinking.

Could anyone not adore the moment when Amanda persuades Darcy to re-enact Colin Firth's dip in the lake, remarking that she's just experiencing a "bit of a strange post-modern moment here" as he walks out looking so... sighhhh.... what can one say about that?:)

And her method of rebuffing Mr.Bingley's advances (yes, horror of horrors, he seems to be falling for her instead of Jane) was absolutely hilarious in context!

I suppose that's what makes this production work: it's really very clever in its comedy. Austen's beloved characters have been re-thought with enough tact, rapier wit and intelligent humour that we still recognise our favourite old friends.

The arrogantly authorative Darcy, quiet Jane, the odd couple that is Mr and Mrs Bennet, the Bingleys - and of course the sanctimonious Mr.Collins - still make their appearances, much to my delight. The only character that's really been missing in all her glory is Elizabeth Bennet.

Yes, I thought so too- how can one have any kind of Pride and Prejudice experience without Elizabeth? And yet, it works.

I feel horrified at the effects of Amanda's unwitting machinations on the plot (akin to a hapless train wreck that's somehow so damn funny you want the train to wreck) but I cannot help but stay glued to my seat to see how it all works out.

A lot of the show's success lies in Jemima Rooper's rendition of Amanda. Rooper brings the unlikely storyline alive with her portrayal of Amanda's bewildered, well-meant interference on behalf of Elizabeth (who has left her stranded in fiction apparently).

Amanda's dislike of Wickham is so militant in its ferocity that you can't help but think the story in the book must have been real to have inspired such passion in her. Her awed confusion when faced with the arrogantly annoying (and yet so utterly attractive) Darcy just sweeps one away into Austen's world, no matter the discrepancies with the original story.

Lost in Austen indeed... I only wish there were more than 4 episodes to this show. I'm dreading the upcoming fourth episode, simply because I know it'll be the end of a deliciously entertaining ride.

Hmmmm, I wonder how it will end? I can't help rooting for Amanda over Elizabeth now. I guess all I can say is, the ITV team have certainly converted this ardent Austen fan into a fan of their alternative Austen world:)

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