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.