Once More, With Feeling

They say builders’ houses fall down around them. Plumbers look after everyone else’s drains while the family loo requires a dance for the toilet-gods and a thump of the cistern for it to flush properly. Mechanics care for customers’ cars while a half dozen chassis rust in their own backyard and two remain half fixed in the garage. That’s what they say, anyhow, if gross generalisations are to be believed. Maybe there’s something in it, given a friend accidently mucked up their own tax return while working on the help desk at the tax office. Who can say? If there is something in it, I wonder what kind of writer I am.

I’ve read about the art of writing online – writing techniques and tricks to great characters and plots. I still have a lousy understanding of grammar but I’ve read the blogs of established authors, and the blogs of pending (read: working-their-arse-off) authors. I’ve spent time examining writing. I write blog posts about how I’m not writing. I’ve learnt reading makes you write better, so I write blog posts about not reading.

The only thing I haven’t done is buy books on the subject. I’ve been tempted, but I can’t shake the irony of buying books about writing books to not write books. I tell myself sternly that only dreamers buy how-to-write books, while writers, they write. I’ve read enough already to know the best cure for not writing is writing. I don’t want to be the builder who can’t build their own house.

This thing is, when I am writing I spend more time re-reading what I’ve written. I self-edit so prematurely I always end up with drafts of drafts such that I have been known to forget which one’s the current version. My default self-edit appears to be tuned to obsessive-compulsive. They say first draft is for the writer, but which one?

This got me googling ‘writing apps’. Maybe there’s an application out there that freezes your ability to edit once the words are on the page. Or at each hundred-word milestone, the previous hundred become blackened like a censored letter so you can only move forward. Or something. Or! Or, I could simply write and not look back.

I follow writers’ blogs. None of them mention writers’ apps or how-to-write books – none of them (unless they, themselves are writing such an app or book). They don’t pin their success on anything other than reading and finding the time to write, everyday, for as long as it takes to finish.

I’m only panicking because I wrote some writerly resolutions for 2015. Am I a dreamer or a writer?

My current status? Willing writers’ will.

All I need to do now is drop that apostrophe.

Finding Resolve

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I believe in resolutions, of course, but I simply don’t understand why they need to coincide with this human-made temporal construct.

I don’t like thinking about time in this fashion because sometimes people consolidate it, label a few bad events as a ‘bad year’. Some events are really bad and their effects can be all encompassing for weeks or months or, indeed, years, but even for that, I think it’s really important to try and take life day by day. Also, ‘resolve’ shouldn’t need a clock, it should feel free to occur at any time.

Having said that, I can see it’s sometimes nice to have a starting point, and well, New Year’s Day is as good as any. So, in that spirit, here are some of my aspirations for 2015.

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I’m going to make lots of mistakes.

Get back to blogging weekly. I have let this slide lately, though, you’ll note, I posted on Christmas day and with posting again today I’m already off to a great start and it’s not even next year yet!

I hope to write. I’d like to finish my long-running WIP and give myself permission to suck. It will suck, but that’s okay because it will also be finished (first draft, at least) and that would be an amazing personal achievement. I’ll try and participate in as many Friday! Flash challenges that I can and get into the habit of free-writing to encourage me to write and think less about it. All writing is practice.

I aim to read a book a month. ‘Only one a month?’ you ask. I know most of you wouldn’t view this as a challenge or a task that even requires resolve. As I’ve said before (apologies for my repetition), although I love books and have surrounded myself with bookish friends my entire life (and would even consider them to be my people), I am not a reader. Maybe I could be, I certainly want to be, especially knowing it will help my writing. You never know, maybe ‘a book a month’ will lead to two. Suggestions welcome.

Delete Candy Crush Saga from my phone as it feeds my procrastination. Can you have retroactive resolutions? I actually did this before Christmas knowing I’d be too busy to be distracted by it then. And now? Now, I have this list of resolutions to occupy my time, dammit.

Make mistakes. I’ve come to realise a little bit of mistake-making is a good thing but I always choose the safe road. My mother says, ‘we don’t bounce’, we don’t spring back from failure as easily as some people so we cling to caution like a raft in the middle of the ocean. I need to learn when it’s safe to let go.

See you next year, my friends.

Whatever you do in 2015, be your best.

Book Finder

Chuck Wendig recently asked this question: What gets you to read a book?

I’m not your normal reader. I should hardly be surprised that what gets me to read a book isn’t ‘normal’ either but after reading a fair portion of the two hundred odd responses to that question, I realise I’m a bookcrastinator. I just made that a thing.6fe043b0c69edddc41f7dbd2a1768fcd

These are the main ways I’m enticed to read a book.

1. Someone’s lent it to me
“This book is amazing. Have you read it?”
“Uh, no. No, I haven’t…”
“Really? Well, here. You can borrow it if you want.”
“That’s very nice of you but-”
“But it’s really good, you’ll really enjoy it”
“I don’t think-”
*steely stare* *gritted teeth* “Just. Read. It.”
“Yeah, Ok. Sure.” *takes book*

That may be a slight exaggeration but borrowing a book is an effective means of getting me to read. It’s fills me with a sense of obligation and the worry of possessing someone else’s stuff can be as motivating as a deadline (unless you’re family. Sorry, I’ll get it back to you soon…). It’s a bit like a friend insisting you attend a function and you end up having a really great time.

2. Saturation Point
If I hear about a book often enough, curiosity prevails. I began reading The Hunger Games trilogy, His Dark Materials and the Harry Potter series this way. And the Twilight saga. My only proviso is, I have to be interested in the basic premise for curiosity to kick in.

3.The Gift
People don’t buy me books very often, (probably because they rarely witness me read them) but I will read a book gifted to me. I sometimes read a book I’ve bought for someone else. Usually my husband. He’ll read it first and if he recommends it, I’ll read it second.

Snapshot 2011-09-02 13-08-574. Book Beauty
I buy a lot of second hand or antique books because I believe they are beautiful not because I plan to read them. But occasionally, I do. Modern books rarely turn my head for their cover art.

Aside: I, Coriander is the only ‘modern’ book I have ever bought because of its appearance and although it’s geared at a much younger audience it’s also a charming read.

Perhaps you are looking at my list wondering what’s wrong with it? I agree, it’s a good, healthy list of completely valid reasons to read a book (I was particularly proud of the way ‘Book Beauty’ sounded like Black Beauty) but as I wrote the sentence ‘modern books rarely turn my head for their cover art’ I realised I rarely look at books. I don’t browse in bookshops, I wander aimlessly. I don’t pluck books from shelves and devour blurbs. I don’t read reviews or recommendations or express an unwavering magnetism for a catchy title. What gets me to read a book is astoundingly passive.

It could be argued that I seek books at markets, but then it’s not really a book I’m buying is it? I’m buying a beautiful object that I’m unlikely to read.

For reading inspiration, a fellow blogger suggested I join GoodReads but the prospect of facing all those books made me feel like Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum, with books heading towards me, hitching up their slip-covers and I’m trying to read them before they multiply. I realise now bookstores make me feel the same way. Overwhelmed.

I don’t find books, books find me.

It’s time to become the sorcerer.

This isn’t the post I intended to write, but this is what evolved. Personally, it’s been most insightful, so thanks for letting me talk it through.

Name Neurosis

When I discovered my brother-in-law read the entire Harry Potter series mentally pronouncing Hermione as her-me-own, I inwardly cringed. It’s a crime akin to someone casually scooping up and flipping through your pristine, untouched, brand new magazine that you’d planned to devour in a sunny window with a cup of tea and you fight the urge to snatch it back because they did not know it was perfect and you could not outwardly admit to your own weird pedantry.

*Ahem*

Anyway. The point is – it’s a crime.

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“Pronounce it properly, Malfoy…”

At age ten I discovered my parents’ book of baby names. When naming me, they skipped straight to the unimaginative section and if I’m honest, they probably needn’t have bothered buying it but that’s not to imply I dislike my name. It’s simple and strong, and it’s never been mispronounced or misspelt and I was the only Kate at my school. And besides, that book allowed me to discover there was something in a name – they had meanings and originated from different cultures and are founded in history, religion or mythology. It changed the way I named my fictitious characters and it became a very enjoyable part of the writing process. I loved choosing them and creating character dossiers.

I felt a degree of horror when my grandfather confessed he handled complicated names in literature by mentally replacing the ‘nonsense’ with ones like Frank or Mary. Naming characters is part of the craft of writing. To ignore the author’s choice would be like a musician methodically structuring the track sequence of their album only to discover their fans play it on random (which I actually used to do until I insulted one such musician by admitting to the habit).

My dad did his bookish thing – he observed my obsession and went to the library and loaned the best name book ever. Like EVER. It had the full etymology – names, meanings, origins, pronunciations and section of historically unusual names like an eighteenth century man called Murder. I took extensive notes and placed it on extended loan. I still create characters around names and occasionally stumble upon the old name lists I created years ago.

fc324fac444d850d9ddd97400f42b520Although I’m usually renowned for my poor spelling and emphasising the wrong syllables, I became a bit of a names expert. Names had to be inflection-perfect and if you had an unusual name I’d unashamedly interrogate you, “So, how do you spell that? Where’s that from? Please say it again”. And then there was that one time I wrote a lady’s name before she had time to spell it for me – Siobhán looked at me like I’d performed a miracle. My own lame superpower (which would be especially lame if I lived in Ireland).

During some more recent research, I discovered an entire blog groaning with comments, arguing over the pronunciation of several names. It was like the Hermione incident in a blog feed. Opinions were strong and divided, some insisting certain elocutions be removed because they couldn’t possibly be correct – “I should know, it’s my name”.

Who’s to say I’m right? When I say William, I say wil-e-am, compared to an Australian radio announcer who says wil-yem and I attempt to convince myself that words evolve and accents influence elocution. But while I try to be open minded and casual about it, it’s like chewing on foil. I even altered my protagonist’s name in my WiP to a phonetic spelling because the thought of readers saying it incorrectly gave me the heebie-jeebies. [Readers? Shush. I know have to finish it first.]

From an even more writerly standpoint and to completely transfigure this post from a rant to an actual certifiable condition – I’m a name hoarder. It probably began with my name lists but I hadn’t quite recognised how precious I was about it until people were sharing their favourite names in their blog posts. First this post by Apprentice Never Master, and then this Sanity? Optional. Writing? Required post. And then (get this), they asked for their readers to share their favourite names too! Well. I’m not telling you that. It’s a secret. They’re my names and you can’t have them.

It’s perfectly rational until you write it down.

Does anyone else feel a little bit protective over the names they like?

Now, I must stop over-sharing.

Bookmarked

Neither of my parents are big readers. While growing up, Mum dabbled with the odd mindless romance whereas Dad was more a non-fiction fan. If you were having a problem with essay writing or having trouble understanding quantum physics, or you’d decided to take up watercolour painting – Dad had it covered. As far as he was concerned, all problems could be solved and all lessons could be taught with books and I can practically track my life’s troubles, interests and education just by lining up the books Dad’s gifted me over the years.

http://media-cache-ec4.pinimg.com/originals/b2/1b/61/b21b616ab0e1eee21f806a7f0a6b4d03.jpgMy parents instilled a desire to preserve all things and they nurtured my instinct to respect the written word. I couldn’t deface my lecturers’ handouts at university let alone write in books. I cannot bookmark pages by folding a corner, I hate creasing the spine, I can’t cut out articles or pictures from magazines. I used to watch game shows and secretly covet the pièce de résistance of non-fiction – the complete set of The Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Who wants a jet ski holiday in Vanuatu? In this technical age with resources at our fingertips it is strange to look back at how times have shifted.

I loved everything about books. I happily soaked up the smell of paper and found sanctuary in libraries (barring the days when the scary librarian worked). I wrote poetry and stories, my closest friends were bookworms and I enjoyed nothing more (with the exception of art and crafts) than our class teacher reading to us.

That’s me.  I revere books but I tend not to read them.

At this point, I usually confuse people. You can find a fuller back-story within this post here, but it would be similar to becoming a lifetime member of the Sky Diving Appreciation Society while afraid of heights and planes.  In some ways, I marvel at this contradiction and feel a little chuffed that I could see books with a clarity beyond the confines of my fear.

With help, my reading finally kicked off in the same year I turned fourteen. I couldn’t be called an Olympic reader but that year I attempted to make up for lost time and read a couple of books a week. I’m not talking epic Lord of the Rings-esque tomes, (although I read The Hobbit during this time) like most teenagers I gravitated towards the latest trend. My book consumption then rapidly diminished and by the time I hit university I’d ceased reading for leisure and solely read non-fiction for my studies.

To this day I’m a slow reader and the prospect of pulling back that first page of a book niggles at a deep and old anxiety I will never tame.  When I do read, I’m fussy. I’ve had two attempts at His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman but I cannot engage with it.  Why not? I like the world he’s created, the characters are intriguing and mysterious yet I don’t care enough to know what happens next. Unfortunately with me, if I’m willing to let a book sit, I won’t finish it.

Geez, I’m rambling. You’ll be relieved to know that this all has a point. My internet, blogging and writing schedule has gone a bit skew-whiff lately and while I’m getting my act together I’m hoping to allocate myself some reading time and work myself up to reading a book a month.

My brain needs bookercise.

Teaching Excellence

Education SystemOnce upon a time, I had a strong disinterest in reading. A physical inability to read put me behind my classmates and my word-stumbling led me to fear books which of course made it worse. Teachers spared me the discomfort of reading aloud because they believed articulate children could read.

I successfully maintained this illusion until the age of nine when my school summoned each student for a competency reading test. My reading-anxiety was so great I vividly remember the small room and the kind assessor who shuffled large sheets of paper charted with words. I got stuck on ‘canary’ and said ‘can-uh-ree’ only to realise later what I should have said. Undoubtedly one of many mistakes I made that day.

The education system got it right. Sure, it would have been great if they’d picked up this problem earlier, but what if my situation had carried on? It didn’t. My parents were notified and a reading plan was implemented and while I’m still not the reader I should be, it’s allowed me to get by. I’m really thankful for that.

Your education is one of those things you’re only able to view in hindsight. You’re not sitting in your Grade 5 class hoping to learn about nouns or deciding to tackle long division. Years can transpire before ‘Really? You don’t know?’ escapes from the mouth of a teacher, parent or sibling and only then you begin to consider the other ways you could have been schooled. Only then you wonder what else your education lacked.

Most children, myself included received a one-size-fits-all education. For me it began with an extra school year, called Prep. I’m really glad I had that extra year, but they didn’t give it to me because I needed it, they gave it to me because I was born in September. Some children didn’t need it and got it anyway, some missed out when they would have benefitted. And so it begins, our learning governed by illogical rules and an inflexible system. We were all slowly being recut to fit the same lock.

Up until I was thirteen, I was free-writing. Teachers added words to my spelling list, inconsistently punctuated sentences and corrected neatness over structure or content. I waltzed through my early school years ignorant of nouns and wouldn’t have known a verb if I’d covered it in sugar and ate it for breakfast. The extent of my early English studies stopped at a list of ‘doing words’. This appeared to be enough. My grades were good.

‘Good’ turned out to be a relative term. At fourteen, my new teacher decided I wasn’t good for my age and my writing had to grow up. I suddenly teetered on the edge of failure. With poor grammatical knowledge, I could only make sense of a short list of ‘don’ts’. Don’t begin a sentence with ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘because’. Only fairytales begin with ‘Once upon a time’ and don’t explain away your story with a dream.

I was devastated. I felt as though all my previous teachers had lied to me and I resented the sudden implication I wrote badly through laziness – I loved writing. Why wasn’t I told earlier? Was I mollycoddled? Didn’t they think I could handle it?

education-systemBeing a studious failure-fearing creature, I over-compensated. I phrased, paraphrased, deleted and inserted until I wasted hours over sentences. It probably set the platform for my tendency to over-edit and ramped up the volume on my inner voice of doubt. Writing became excruciating. Where had the enjoyment gone? Was it better when I wrote badly without boundaries?

There’s an enormous onus placed upon teachers. Not only to cover the curriculum but to identify and nurture each student’s strengths and interests. To know when to filter new information without harming growth. To know how to inspire and encourage. Generally, teachers do an amazing job often under difficult circumstances, and I needed to hear the truth about my writing, but this technique failed. He used criticism without optimism and any kindness remained patronising. I just felt stupid.

Writing and I grew apart. By the time I waved university goodbye, I sidelined creative writing for other life-stuff and I stopped having that 3am idea.

But writing wasn’t lost, its importance remained in my subconscious. It survived clean-outs and computer upgrades and it waited.  I remembered how much I liked writing.  With older eyes, it looked different now – I could make choices, I could bend rules. I could move boundaries.

I saw a glimmer.

It turns out a story can end with a dream.