May 27, 2017

how to write a sentence

I was blessed to have been taught Shakespeare's works by a world renowned expert (at least so he described himself). I've never forgotten how he and a colleague determined once and for all that a piece of writing had not been written by Shakespeare: the same word had been used twice in one sentence. Shakespeare, apparently, would never be so shoddy.

I took that information with me into my own writing. I can't say I've adhered to the rule every time, because a more important rule is that writing should breathe naturally, and if you are always ticking off rules you won't necessarily manage that. But it's a good idea to keep at the back of your mind, or to implement during the edit.

I was also taught that writing should balance between being beautiful and invisible. This is my constant struggle! In particular, how to create a gorgeous description without making it clog the senses of the reader? Careful, cool-minded, technical choice of words can help.

Here is an example of how I worked through a sentence in one of my current works-in-progress :

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing, to call Swallowfield to church.

Having two uses of the word to here, and for different grammatical purposes, violates my Shakespeare rule. Although most would not even notice, it gets on my nerves and also creates a double beat in the sentence that spoils the lyricism.

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing, calling Swallowfield to church.

All those -ing words makes for a tangle. There should be a slight pause where the second comma lies, and to pick the sentence up again with yet another -ing word does not allow a natural rhythm.

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing; they called Swallowfield to church.

Technically this is better, but the rhythm still doesn't feel quite right. The semi-colon makes the pause heavier, and there's a temptation to fill it with more words. But that would be a bad idea, for this particular sentence is a servant, rather than a decoration.* Its job is simply to convey information. Here is where "beautiful but invisible" must be remembered. I'm not saying this sentence is beautiful, but that adding more description would only clutter it up without providing any more important information.

(* This sentence originally had two uses of "this" until I changed the first, uncertainly, to "that". I personally think this and that sound awkward in the same sentence. And I don't mind a repetition of certain words that can slip easily into the background, such as and, or, this. I also don't hold blog writing to the same standard as essay writing. However, I changed it incase anyone smirked. No doubt other sentences in this post are equally incorrect, but I don't want to spend all day editing it.)

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing; they called Swallowfield in to church.

Adding "in" made the rhythm feel more flowing to me. Also, it's a subtle piece of themework. Probably too subtle to be noticed - which is good. Ideally, you want a whole lot of these tiny, unnoticed pebbles filling up your path towards meaning, so that a reader intuitively feels what you want them to feel, rather than having to be told.

This is the kind of editing process that is fun to think about, and to teach other people, but as I said above, it isn't always helpful to apply to every sentence in a story. Technically good writing doesn't necessarily equate to heartfelt, lively, captivating writing. (On the other hand, heartfelt writing may be a shambles if you don't meet it with calm consideration - for example, Deep In The Far Away was written a chapter per week, with immediate and unmissable deadlines, so technicality was disposed of in favour of liveliness and a short and long term narrative flow. It perhaps worked as a series, but as a complete novel, it does not stand up well, which is why I have removed it from my catalogue until I am able to revise it properly.) Just because I am sharing this advice doesn't mean that I am any great shakes as a writer! Only that it's helpful information, I think, picked up from a real expert.

taking the gentle woman seriously

My twitter feed is mostly politics and poetry. My dream house would be something big and almost entirely empty, with faded wallpaper and windows open to every wild wind, and outside, a garden luxuriating in roses. I almost never write a story without it containing some kind of love and also, inevitably, a saturating mist of melancholy.

I worry that pretty backgrounds on my weblog will mean people won't take me seriously.

But then, isn't that the universal female condition? Worrying that we won't be regarded for our words and actions, but for the clothes we wear and how we style our hair? And it's not just in our business dealings. The woman poet, the woman reader, the woman blogger, the woman philosopher ... Each is judged by the appearance she offers. We may assume a woman who reads Young Adult books isn't that deep a thinker (perhaps until we read some of those books ourselves and are forced to reconsider.) We do not expect cutting political insight from a woman in white lace who blogs about tea parties, and yet she may well be highly intelligent in that field. If you read Suburban Magic, you know how I embrace myth and magic in daily life - and yet, ought I not wear brown woolens, and old boots, and drink herbal teas I have concocted myself, if I am to be taken seriously as a pagan dreamer who speaks to old river dragons? Will people expect my books to be gentle romances because I like vintage rose images? If I write about dark sorcerers, iron dragons, Hansel's sufferings, falling in love with mountains, should I have fewer porcelain tea cups and lace table cloths on my pinterest boards?

I have written on this topic before, and will probably do so again, because it's an ongoing struggle for me and, I believe, for women in general in our culture. Not only the idea that we must essentially brand ourselves in a particular way that expresses our key opinions or qualities, but also the fact that softness and prettiness are considered unserious. Anne Shirley would have a hard time of it these days. For me, this represents the work we women still need to do in finding balance as we take the long road out of repression into a true and confident feminism.

a fabulous interview with Hillary Clinton

top picture : eleanor fortescue brickdale

May 24, 2017

love in the dark hour

It's love I see today. It's courage and compassion, which are after all the promises we are given when we enter the trials of this life. I know there is evil, but it does not own today.

In all the anguish and fear that burns through communities in this war, for it is a war, we must never lose sight of just how much goodness we live amongst. How many doors open to take us in, or bring us food and tea, how many hands are there to hold us when we bleed or weep. Even those people our society has turned against, leaving them to sleep in doorways and eat rubbish when really there are enough resources for all - these discarded people, they run into the fire to save our children. Next time you see an article headed, "what you need to know about the terrorist," look instead for the one headed, "what you need to know about the heroes" - for they are who we truly do need to know about.

Perhaps if we started to see our community as it actually is, never mind political rhetoric or media bias - if we appreciated the decency, compassion, kindness, strength, that is the main of this beautiful multicultural society, we would vote more bravely, and be more neighbourly, and love our world more dearly, confident that humankind really is good at heart, after all.