Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Do you know anyone going to university or college who will need to write a dissertation at some point in their course?

 Under the name April Taylor, I have just published a short e-book aimed at students. “Cutting Through The Academic Crap: An Informal Guide to Writing Your Dissertation” is available from Amazon. http://amzn.to/OYcuoT

 Why did I feel the need to write it? Read on.

There used to be a joke, which turned about to be the truth regarding an EU directive about cucumbers. It amounted to a terrifying number of words when compared to the American Bill of Rights. Scary when you consider that the first deals with a salad vegetable and the second the rights of a nation’s individuals.

 My mother’s generation always believed in the value of long-winded pomposity over short, clear and to the point writing. There are still people around who believe that they will appear more intellectual if they use fifty words when five would do.

 I have to admit to a prejudice against some academics on this score and never more so than when I wrote the dissertation for my M.Sc. I remember sitting in the lecture room feeling that I made two short planks look intelligent. And why? Because instead of explaining and advising us in clear concise English, the tutors spouted terminology and jargon sowing confusion and fear.

 Fast forward a few years and the incredibly intelligent and talented son of a friend was working himself into a nervous breakdown over his dissertation. I was angry. More than that, I determined to do something about it. We spent a long weekend making sense of his jumbled notes. Had he been given guidance by his tutors? Yes, but they kept changing their minds. The saddest thing was that he knew exactly what he wanted to say, but nobody had told him in plain uncomplicated language how to say it. Worse, they hadn’t even hinted at how much knowledge of the software he would need. Hence the book.

 It covers not just how to put a dissertation together, but how to organise your notes, how to use your time effectively, how to manipulate Word and what to do if it all goes wrong. If it saves just one student from the hell my friend went through, I shall be delighted.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Perils of travel in Tudor England

Research. Important, like butter in a baked potato. Too much and it makes you sick, too little and you can’t swallow the potato.

I am currently firming up the research for the third Luke Ballard novel, working title “Sweeter than Flowing Honey”. In this book, Luke is forced to travel back to Lincolnshire and his childhood home. Young Prince Arthur, only 8 weeks old has been abducted and the end of the thread of detection seems to be in the Lincolnshire Uprising of 1536. Luke has other difficulties to face besides finding the prince. His relationship with his father, meeting again the lord of the manor whose son, Luke’s best friend, died on the Mary Rose after enlisting following an argument with Luke over a woman and his own inability to ask for help when he needs it.

Following the clues, Luke travels to where he thinks the prince is being held. Too late. Leaving a tantalizing clue for him to follow, the abductors have moved on, with their trophy. So, minus the baby, Luke must travel half the length of England back to Hampton Court Palace to face the wrath of the King. But, will he get there?

The roads in Tudor England were thronged with a variety of dangers. When the Wars of the Roses ended with the accession of Henry VII and his marriage to Elizabeth of York, private armies were more or less abolished. This led to highly trained men discharged from service with nothing but their clothes and weapons, turning to vagabondage or violent robbery. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, most of the monks were given pensions. Not so the staff such as cooks, gardeners, laundry people etc. Most of them had no option but to become vagrants. At that time, the wool trade to Europe was in full swing, the demand for English wool was voracious. This made landlords turn whole swathes of land to grass and farm sheep. Result? Many more people out of work. One shepherd to look after a flock of sheep was all that was needed. Other workers were turned out of their homes and jobs and left to fend for themselves. Then there were the gypsies, who, most people believed, were descended from the Ancient Egyptians. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s main bully-boy, issued instructions that all gypsies were to be rounded up and deported, even if they produced paperwork saying they were legally in England. If they refused, then they were to be summarily executed.

The state of the highways in Tudor England was dire. In winter they were almost impassable with mud and snow and in summer the depth of the rutted surfaces were a danger to both horses and men. Most of the countryside was still covered in thick woodland, an ideal spot for footpads to lurk and prey on those who could not afford an escort or could not join a group of travellers. There is a delightful story about Gamaliel Ratsey, a celebrated highwayman, who waylaid a preacher and demanded from him a sermon. The parson chose charity to the poor as his topic and so moved Ratsey that he became something of a Robin Hood character, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. With ostlers and tavern staff giving information to the robbers about who was travelling and what they carried, few were safe.

All in all, travel was not to be undertaken by those of a nervous disposition. Will Luke be safe?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

New Year. New thoughts.

Christmas has, once more, come and gone in a twinkling. For me, it’s been a very enjoyable time with family, feeding our souls as well as our faces. With Paul being at home for almost 3 weeks, we’ve also been able to get long-standing jobs in the house done, too. Of course, one cannot get everything done. We have a former loo, now cleaning materials storage room halfway between the ground and first floor. The handle falls off the door with sickening monotony mostly because the spindle isn’t long enough. This was top of the jobs for Paul to sort out. Is it sorted? No.

But that’s like life, isn’t it? When I lived in the city, I formed a group of close friends and we all met one afternoon a week to do our cross-stitch embroidery and put the world to rights. Being enthusiastic stitchers, we went to all the exhibitions around the UK collecting cross-stitch kits that we couldn’t live without. The joke was that we would have to live to 100 just to get the ones in our collections finished. Then we decided that we must go through our kits and be really ruthless about weeding them out. The ones we didn’t think we would get round to were to go to the local charity shop. One of my friends counted how many kits she had - 58. She went through them, stringently according to her, and managed to put 3 aside. Sadly, a year later, she died of a sudden heart attack and there were still 52 untouched, unopened, kits in her stash.

There are so many things we want to achieve before we go to the great embroidery circle in the sky. And for all of us, the danger is that we start to concentrate on doing instead of being. We complain that the world is moving faster and faster and we can’t keep up. But, when you look at it in a clinical manner, for those who work a 40 hour week and sleep 8 hours each night, that still leaves us 72 hours unaccounted for. Three days in every week when our time is our own, not driven by an employer. Time to do what feeds our spirits and balances us.

Modern mantras tell us we can have it all, so long as we manage our time effectively. But effectively for what? Certainly not for us as living entities with emotional needs. We have to accept that we will die with a long list of things not done and that is nothing to be worried about. It is simply the nature of existence. So my resolution for 2012 is to bring balance back into my life, to enjoy the sun when it decides to put in an appearance, smell the roses, go and gaze at the sea for a while on a regular basis and do the things that make life a happier place to inhabit.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Time for Reflection

During November, in common with many other writers, I took part in NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. The aim of the exercise is to start and complete a 50,000 word novel within the month. Of course, that doesn’t include planning the book, just writing it. And here comes the difficult bit. Not writing the 50,000 words, no, because I do write very quickly, but 50,000 words is only half a novel by my standards. When the task is broken down, 50,000 words over 30 days is an average of 1,667 words every day. Easy, I thought, provided I planned meticulously and kept my focus.

And so it should have been. A writing friend of mine managed - wait for it - 112,600 words inside the month and knowing him, I also know that he will have been scrupulously honest and not written a word until 1st November. I worked out I needed to write about 3,000 words each day to get to my usual novel length. My preparation was good. I knew the characters, the setting and the plot. By the first week, I had written some 20,000 words. Then a few personal problems hit the fan and for 4 days, I didn’t write anything. Not a problem. I had to put the problems on the back burner and bring the novel back into focus. And I did for one memorable day when I wrote over 6,000 words. This is not to be recommended. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was exhausted, nothing left. Next day I was ill. And I stayed ill for almost a week.

I could see the word “failure” staring me in the face. So I knuckled down and, to cut a long story short, I did manage to end November with almost 53,000 words done, including the end. The middle is virtually non-existent. What have I learned? I can do it. Well, I can write over 50,000 words inside a month, but I can’t write a novel that fast even though I prepared more than I usually do. Why? Because writing is organic.

I am not a machine churning out words. The words build up into an entity that has a life of its own and sometimes, in fact, often, it doesn’t want to go where you planned.

It’s like driving from London to Birmingham. There are so many routes and you might well plan to go by the most direct motorway route. But, wait a minute, what’s that over there? Looks interesting, let’s go and explore. And suddenly you’re miles off the motorway and although the bonnet of the car may be sort of pointing vaguely towards Birmingham, you’re in the middle of the countryside discovering places you’ve never been to or heard of before. And you’re loving it. It isn’t about getting to Birmingham any more. It’s about the discoveries on the way.

Just the same with writing. I write on a loose plan, know the beginning and the end, but the middle isn’t set and that’s the most enjoyable part. Exploring. It’s what quickens my blood when I’m at the computer, fingers flying allowing the characters to take me where I hadn’t even thought of going.

So the biggest thing I’ve learned is that, yes, I can do the words, but that isn’t what drives me. It’s the journey. Not the destination.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Fun and Learning

Last week I spent a great few days in London with my very dear friend, professional opera singer and voice coach, Janet Shell. We went to Kensington Palace, enjoying a few hours there looking at the ‘Seven Princesses’ exhibition. Many of the state rooms are being revamped. The palace has cleverly set up the exhibition devoting a room to each of the princesses, including Victoria, Margaret and Diana. In each room is an almost mystical representation of that princess, along with clues so that the more enquiring visitors can deduce to whom that room is devoted. The ‘Explainers” throughout the exhibition are, as is usual for all the historic royal palaces, incredibly well-informed and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. As a keen student of history, I loved the challenge - and yes, I worked out all seven.

Knowledge of a different kind was another of Janet’s objectives. We’ve called this Avril’s London Orientation Project. Last visit was largely given over to the underground and how to get from A to B in the shortest time possible. This trip was the continuation of the overground bits. All of which was conducted by bus from Kensington Palace to St Pancras, or as my spell-checker would prefer, pancreas, for a meal at the Champagne Bar. London seems full of roadworks at the moment, so the route was anything but direct, all of which suited Janet’s purpose to try and make me see how the ‘grid’ works and which streets are connected to which. No two ways about it, if you are not in a hurry, bus is a great way to see the city. For me, this will be an ongoing learning experience.

After our champagne meal, we went to the Union Chapel to hear Eric Whitacre and his singers in concert. Once again, I was stunned by the pure tones of his choir and the ingenuity of his chord structures.

The most thought-provoking part of the week, though, was, for me, watching Janet give a ‘taster’ presentation for student teachers of her work with voice. Her company, Talking Voice specialises in teaching those whose professions are prone to voice issues, to save their voices from the dangers of overuse leading to vocal nodes and other less pleasant things.

I had no idea that 60% of teachers will at some time be off work with vocal problems. Janet makes her presentations about fun and energy as well as learning. She will change tack and focus the instant she thinks anyone is glazing over. these include games and a lot of physical movement to bring home her mantra - that we only have one voice and you cannot go to the supermarket and buy another if you damage it.

This fun/enjoyment approach led to a much deeper feeling of regret and, yes, sadness. Today, we are bombarded by employers saying that many young people have neither the Maths/English nor Communication skills necessary to be effective in the workplace. I wrote to David Cameron when he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, suggesting that what was needed in education was a complete re-think about what it was really for. Why educate our children? Surely, as well as trying to make them rounded individuals who can think, the overwhelming need is to prepare them for the world of work.

What I received in reply was a standard ‘we’ve done this, written this, suggested that’ bread and butter letter from someone I’d never heard of. What a shame DC himself couldn’t even be bothered to sign the response, let alone read what I’d written.

So, what can we do about the parlous state of our education system? Can we stop the tick-box mentality, where, if a child learns the letter H in a week, he/she is judged to be a success? Could we - heaven forbid - try to make learning fun? I know when I was young if I enjoyed a subject, I was far more likely to work hard at it. I can’t think children have changed that much. Isn’t it worth a try? After all, these are the people who will be controlling our lives in 20 years time when we are all sitting by the fire mumbling our gruel.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Displacement in Time

Last Sunday I had the strange experience of standing on the distant past, looking up at the recent past while still being in the present.

We visited my brothers who live on the Lincolnshire Wolds near Horncastle, one of the towns that rebelled in the Lincolnshire Uprising of 1536. This rebellion greatly affected the Pilgrimage of Grace that took place north of the river Humber soon afterwards. Robert Aske, the leader of the Yorkshire Pilgrimage, saw what happened to the leaderless Lincolnshire rebels, how easily the “commons” or common folk were manipulated by the “gentlemen” and how this lack of common purpose led directly to the failure of the rebellion.

This one fact made Aske realize that if his uprising were to succeed, it must have a single purpose. He made that the restoration of the religious houses that had been mauled by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. What Aske, and very few others, realized was that Henry was not the tool of Cromwell, not being led astray by low-born councillors. Henry was the aggressor, severely frightened by the strength of the rebellion and determined on savage retribution. Many men from both counties were executed.

Not far from where my brothers live, the men of Horncastle murdered Raynes, the Bishop of Lincoln’s hated chancellor and a clerk called Wolsey. Both these men are buried in the churchyard at Horncastle. Those executed for their part in the uprising have no graves. That is the distant past.

The recent past flew overhead from its home at RAF Coningsby. One of the few remaining Lancaster bombers, the planes that carried out many raids of World War 2, including the Dambusters’. The aircraft is a

wonderful sight and beautiful to hear. I remember my mother, who lived close to the Lincolnshire air bases during the war, telling me how she would watch the squadrons fly over the village on their way to Germany and how the authorities “hid” bombs in the bottom of local hedgerows so that all the weaponry was not in one place and could not be destroyed in a single raid.

Last year, I visited the Moehne Dam, taking a boat trip onto the lake, following the path of the Lancasters as they dived for the water, tried to avoid the flak and bounce their bombs up to the dam wall. It was a sobering experience, especially when we are now told that the dams’ raid didn’t really do that much damage to the German war machine.

On a Sunday in 2011, I stood on the site where men killed each other in 1536 and looked up at a beautiful machine that spewed death from the skies in 1943. We all think history is so distant, but the truth is that if we took the opportunity to take time out and look around, it surrounds us. It has fashioned our lives and our freedoms. Please don’t ever tell me history doesn’t matter.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Scrivener. Discipline needed

In the good old (bad old?) days, I used to write with Word. Used it happily in the main, but it did have a few issues. What software doesn’t? But I wrote, on average between 2000-4000 words a day with music softly going on in the background. Some books, like the Sherlock Holmes “Murder at Oakwood Grange” come back to me whenever I hear certain pieces of music. I had a system. It worked. I switched on the computer, loaded Word and started writing.

Then I discovered Scrivener and my entire writing life changed. It can almost claim to do everything except make coffee. I have had to learn a whole new way of working. Writing scenes instead of chapters. Scrivener can store all your research, your manuscript, character studies, location details et al in the one project file. You can shift your scenes around at the click of a few buttons to give your story more tension or conflict. You can analyse the text to see if you have too many repeating words, you can set a novel wordcount and a session wordcount and keep abreast of your progress. When you are finished, you can compile your book, formatting it as you wish, including what you want to include and export it as a “ready for agent” manuscript or in epub format if it is an e-book, or as a pdf, a paperback novel, etc.

One drawback to all this ability is that using Scrivener requires quite a bit of discipline. As David Hewson says in his excellent e-book “Writing A Novel with Scrivener”, you don’t want to spend hours learning the software, you want to get on and write. And that is the one difficulty I have. Why? It is partly a need to write differently to the way I have for years. I've always written chapters in the correct sequence, not "scenes". In my chapters as in most novelists', there is usually more than one scene in a chapter.

It is also partly that when I open up the project file, I can see everything, and I mean everything, at a glance in the binder. Research, character information etc. I get distracted so easily, especially when, as now, outside influences are hindering me from focussing as much as I am used to and I find the story not flowing as it should.

There is a nifty way round this, of course. You can use Scrivener in full-screen mode so nothing appears on the screen except your words. So all I have to do really is discipline myself to use that before I allow the distractions to hold sway. That’s an easy one. A given.

The other thing about the software that I find completely incomprehensible at the moment is how to get the compile function programmed so that my scenes become chapters. I normally pick up software so very easily, but this bit has me completely bamboozled. I’ve read Hewson’s section on compiling several times. I know it’s in English but it might as well be Martian because I just don’t understand. Just at the moment, the tail is wagging the dog for me on this subject.

So, today, I am taking part in the amazing Jurgen Wolff’s Massive Action Day and one of my goals is to finally get to grips with ‘compile’. If I can’t, I shall admit defeat and ask the support team at Literature & Latte for help. But, one way or the other, I must fettle this one, because Scrivener is such a fantastic piece of software for writers of all kinds and there is no way on this planet that I will go back to using Word. Wish me luck.