On Reading and the Art of Giving Up – Reading Diary #2

In this instalment of my Reading Diary: how to begin a book, how to give it a chance, why giving up is an option – and an analysis of one book I gave up on


Nowadays, when I start reading, I keep an eye on the page numbers and see if I can’t reach page 50 by the end of the first sitting. After that I try to read two or three chapters or 20 to 30 pages at each subsequent reading. Of course this only works with longer books. With books of short stories or essays, books of poetry or other thinner volumes I have different strategies. But novels, biographies, histories – anything that has serious mass – this is the way I go now.

The 50 page first bite confirms for me that the book is worth trying to read. If I can’t get to page 50 – or at least close to that – on my first sitting, I have to ask, Why? Is it because the book is too dense? (Maybe I’m going to have to revise my idea of the time I want to give to it.) Or is the book just poorly written? Is it irritating me too much?

If the latter, comes the next question: Am I going to waste any more time on it?

Lately – and this is a very new development – my answer to that last question is No.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish

Not so long ago my philosophy was, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” Guided by that, I tortured myself with numerous titles that just weren’t worth the effort. I’d start reading, and because I’d started I’d grit my teeth and plough on, generally making my life increasingly miserable. Every time I finished one of these exercises in masochism the relief was palpable. But why do it? Just because it’s so nice when it stops? That’s the punchline of a joke, but it’s no way to live.

And why take it as a poor reflection on myself when, despite everything, I failed to read a book even under this lash? Why not blame the author? You, yes, you, damn you! You who couldn’t keep my attention, who couldn’t interest me enough!

But really, it’s not the author’s fault either, just my own stupidity.

Maybe I’m getting a little less stupid.

What has changed, apart from my having struggled at last out of the Slough of Despond, is a growing consciousness of my mortality. Life is just too short, I tell myself.

It’s something I have to tell myself because, after a lifetime of assuming that a book:
1. that’s made it into print,
2. that someone has recommended or
3. that someone I know has written, and
4. that I’ve picked up and started,
is necessarily a book I have to finish. After a lifetime of that, it’s hard not to fall back into the rut of: “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

Giving up : Man with books - detail of foot Bad books

Mind you, it’s not as though I’m exactly wading through bad books. In the last eight months I’ve chosen to not continue trying to read just two. And there’s one other I’ve read but wish I’d had the strength of mind not to plough through.

(Let’s not be coy – the book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on is Linda LaPlante’s Backlash.)

One of the two books this last year that I eventually chucked aside is Barnbruden by Anna Laestadius Larsson.


Barnbruden means “child-bride”, and, yes, it’s in Swedish. (There may be an English translation, but a quick Internet search doesn’t turn one up.) It’s a fictionalised account of a few years of the life of Charlotte – Princess Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Oldenburg – the child-bride of the title. Charlotte came to Sweden in 1774, aged 15, in order to marry the brother of the King of Sweden.

Giving up: Barnbruden
There is a portrait of the young Charlotte by the Swedish artist Alexander Roslin, but for some reason the publishers chose to decorate the cover of Barnbruden with a Roslin painting of a different woman.

The book was recommended to me because it has things in common with my Elin’s Story.

I’m not sure how far I want to go into the things about the book that made me – finally – give up. Because I didn’t give up directly. I put Barnbruden to the fifty page test and it passed. I actually got through 156 pages – the first 22 chapters. (There were 252 pages left to go.) It wasn’t that I found the Swedish difficult. Of course, as someone who only learned to read Swedish as an adult, as someone who has not put nearly as much effort into appreciating Swedish as I have into appreciating English, I’m in no position to pass comment on the quality of the Swedish Ms Larsson writes. So I won’t say anything more than that I thought the language was pretty straightforward.

However, I became increasingly irritated by two things that have nothing to do with the language. First, character development (or lack thereof), second historical accuracy.

More fool me

The novel starts quite well, with the heroine’s voyage to Sweden and her initial experience of the court. That was what saw me through the first 50 pages. But after that, after that it deteriorates into banality. It holds out the promise of character development, but then betrays that promise. Of course, I have to wonder whether I’m being too harsh. Whether the book is just very slow in setting up its character development. But I gave it three times as much space as I give other books to prove itself to me and it still didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Barnbruden has clearly been a success. It was published in 2013 and there are already two sequels. Perhaps I was expecting too much from it. Maybe it’s only a romantic romp got up to look like a serious historical novel. Only a bit of fluff successfully marketed as an example of feminist historical fiction. But, you see, I was reading it under the impression it was a serious historical novel, that it was actually a work of feminist historical fiction. More fool me.

The eck of history

It seems as though Ms Larsson is very taken with the eck of history – with body odour and sweat, urine and shit, lice and fleas – and is keen to share. Also that she is so keen to write about the experience of women in the past that she’s prepared to insert modern perspectives and activities into the historical narrative. I think this is particularly noticeable when she writes about sex.

I’m not sufficiently well read in this particular period to be sure, so I could be wrong. A large part of the book seems to draw on the diary that Charlotte kept for all her life and I haven’t read the diary. It’s possible Charlotte was sufficiently indiscreet to actually write about some of the things Ms Larsson passes on. But, I have my doubts.

Sex as window dressing

For example, is it really likely that Charlotte would have all her body hair shaved before her wedding night? Maybe it is, maybe it happened, maybe she recorded the experience in her diary. It just seems unlikely. I do know that not 150 years before Charlotte’s wedding, in England, women had their body hair shaved only to combat disease – in particular sexually transmitted disease. At that time and in that place, shaved body hair marked a woman out as a diseased prostitute. Shaving body hair simply wasn’t acceptable for women with any claim to respectability – especially among the aristocracy. (Shaving or plucking hair from your scalp line to raise your forehead was a different matter.)

Maybe, in her diary, Charlotte described her first sexual encounter with her husband as a rape. Maybe she implied it. (This latter seems more likely.) What perplexes me is why her husband, after using her so badly on their wedding night, and then “servicing” her on a daily basis in much the same manner in order to get her pregnant, should suddenly choose to give her cunnilingus. And that after a completely unexplained change in his feelings towards her.

Possibly the Princess also wrote in her diary an explicit description of the transgressive scene Ms Larsson retells. The one in which Charlotte’s maid and friend Sophie von Fersen introduces her to sex by kissing her like a man and fondling her body – a practice Sophie claims to have learned from her brother. Certainly the diary appears to have been started as series of unsent letters addressed to Sophie von Fersen, so what do I know?

It may be all there in the diary. But in Barnbruden it honestly reads as far too modern. By and large most of it fails to advance the story, so it also reads like window dressing.

In the watches of the night

It feels bitter and harsh to be criticising this book. It feels a lot like the voice of failure, as I lie awake in my bed and run through the things I hate about this book. This book I’ve just put down on the bedside table in order to compose myself for sleep. Which I’m not managing to do.

What right, I ask myself, what right do you have to criticise Anna Laestadius Larsson? You who have squandered the last eight years failing to write your own historical novel? I defend myself: Don’t I have the same right as any reader who feels short-changed? Yes, I grant myself that – but it still feels like envious disparagement. Shame!

I can’t sleep and find myself gazing into the well of my self-doubt – as one does at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Finally, I sit myself up and go on-line to see what I can find out about Ms Larsson and how the general public, and any historians, may have reacted to her book when it came out.

You’re never weird on the Internet

Reviews and the Swedish language pages of Goodreads. First off, I discover that Ms Larsson isn’t an historian but a journalist – which is a partial explanation. Then I discover that nevertheless she has her fans. (And why not? Even journalists need people to love them.)

Most of the women – I only found women – who have read the book and written about it on-line have enjoyed it. Some have even been inspired by it. Some, though – I’m relieved to see – have reacted like myself. Sisters! (I cry – but softly, it’s the middle of the night after all.) I am not alone. Not uniquely weird, not the only person to have found the history in Barnbruden dubious and the characterisation dodgy.

After reading all the negative criticism I could find on-line (not much) I felt less as though I was at fault for not enjoying the book, and more justified in putting it aside. And actually able to switch off the light, and the tablet, and go to sleep.

It took a long time to write this entry. I kept hesitating about publishing my critique of Barnbruden. Well, I made the decision at last.

Next time

Next time I’ll write about a book I actually enjoyed reading all the way to the end – and how I read as I get towards the end of a book I like.

Man with books

A note about some of the subheadings

I’ve started, so I’ll finish
This is a catchphrase from the BBC TV quiz series Mastermind. Coined by first presenter, Magnus Magnusson, it was incorporated into the title of his account of the programme I’ve Started, So I’ll Finish: The Story of Mastermind (1997).

More fool me
This is a widely used expression. Some people say “The more fool I”. Shakespeare did in As You Like It (Touchstone: “…now I am in Arden; the more fool I! when I was at home, I was in a better place: but travellers must be content.”) But more recently “More fool me” is the title of a song by Genesis (1973) and a work of autobiography by Stephen Fry (2014).

In the watches of the night
An expression meaning the deeper, darker parts of the night. The term refers to guard duty (watch duty) in time of war or uncertainty – or simply during a curfew – and is recorded (as “night watches”) in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It’s been used repeatedly in the form “watches of the night” as the title of books, novels, short stories and poems.

You’re never weird on the Internet
This comes from the title of a work of autobiography by actress, vlogger and Internet entrepreneur Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir from 2015.

Reading Diary #1 – To Have and to Have Not

I’ve decided to start a reading diary At The Quill. I don’t know how this is going to work, but I’m reading regularly now – have been for more than a year, I think, looking back. I’ve been mentioning my reading in my private diary more and more frequently. Why not extract those pieces and polish them up a little to post them? At least it will mean a more occasional posting than the dearth of what’s At The Quill at present.

I don’t need to call it anything more fancy than “Reading Diary” (though I expect I’ll think of something).

Book box giving

After my blog entry about the Book Boxes at Stops and Stories last Wednesday, I decided to take a bag of books and go round the boxes leaving the books – one here, one there. It wasn’t so difficult in the end, choosing which to give away. The three my mother gave me when I was last home (including the awful Linda LaPlante Backlash), plus the last of the Terry Pratchett books – The Shepherd’s Crown – which I liked well enough but doubt I’ll want to read again.

Then there’s the hardback of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman that I bought back home in Sweden last summer. I hope someone finds it and enjoys it (more than I did). I’m also giving my copy of Gone Girl (the beginning was better than the end), China Miéville’s Embassytown (good, but not nearly as good as The City and The City), and Angela Gillies’ The White Lie. Of them all, I think it’s the last I may regret giving away most. That’s personal – simply because I’ve been in touch with Angela directly (over Twitter). But I must be honest with myself – though I enjoyed it am I going to want to re-read it? Probably not.

Giving books away

Giving books away like this is a new experience for me. Of course I’ve parted with books in the past, but often not very willingly. I can still remember the covers of some of the books I sold when I was a student, and how painful it felt – like abandoning a child.

I’m being melodramatic. How would I know what it’s like to abandon a child?

But I still remember the deep green cover of my Everyman copy of Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke of the Governour; the white cover with the red, blue and black lettering and the imitation woodcut illustration of my book of mediaeval European history. And why can I remember them so clearly? And why does it still hurt that I was fool enough to part with them? For a handful of coins that weren’t really enough to pay for the next book I bought?

Make room! Make room!

My depression and my inability to read overlapped with our move to the present flat in Gothenburg where we had – still have – even less room for bookshelves than in the place we left. My re-discovery of the joys of reading, now, coincides with our move to Brussels and empty shelves that cry out to be filled. But I know in a year, or a year and a half, that we’ll be moving back and I have no idea how I’m then going to shoehorn all these new books into the flat. It’s probably a good idea to start training myself to be selective about the books that I keep, and to pass on the rest.

It is easy to let go of books you haven’t enjoyed reading. At the same time it feels a bit shabby. If I didn’t like them, am I not cheating others when I give them away? Am I passing them off as books to read when I really believe they’re not worth it? I argue with myself and say: Because this book isn’t to your taste doesn’t mean it won’t suit someone else. Besides I’m also giving away some books I’ve enjoyed but don’t see myself picking up to re-read any time soon.


You should borrow more books from the library, Mrs SC says. And she’s right. And I do. But mostly it’s when I want to be surprised. I go to the library, I look along the shelves, and I see what jumps out at me. It’s how I found Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water. It’s how I found Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. When I know for sure what I want to read, when I have an author’s name or a title, then a search online and an order placed. Or, as just happened, a visit to a local bookstore (in the belief that I am supporting local business against the evil Amazon) – that’s my usual practice.

To Kindle, or not

I’ve got a Kindle app on my mobile phone, but to be honest I mostly don’t see the point. Yes, yes. I know all the arguments about saving space and saving paper. But there are so many things you can do with a printed book that you can’t do with electronic document. Read in the bath. Make notes in the margins. (Not that I do the former – or the latter very much either to be honest.) Read without having to worry about battery time and without tiring my eyes. Give it away.

I have one title on my telephone Kindle that I read three years ago – Sonya Hartnet’s Thursday’s Child. I really enjoyed that book and deeply regret that I don’t have a proper hard copy. It was the experience of buying Thursday’s Child through Kindle – it was only my second or third Kindle buy – that killed my interest in buying more. That and the ridiculous complications I ran into when I was forced to reinstall the Kindle app, and couldn’t find my password. I thought all the books that I had bought up to then were erased and I would have to pay a second time for any title I wanted to re-read. Well, that turned out not to be true. Not then and there. But it might be in the future, and it just added to my reluctance.

No, I’m sticking with the printed word.

So, if this reading diary is going to be a regular thing it’s likely to be – mostly – a diary of reading print media. You’re warned.

Filled with numbers and books - secondary school art
Filled with numbers and books – art decorating the outer wall of a secondary school on Rue du Grande-Serment, Brussels

A note on the heading and subheadings

To have and to have not is the title of a novel by Ernest Hemingway from 1937. It seemed appropriate.

Make room! Make room! is title of a science fiction novel by Harry Harrison published in 1966. Though, to be sure, it wasn’t an exploration of the consequences of unchecked book buying.

Tala’s Story – The Judgement

The judgement on Tala’s Story came in this week. Here is my analysis of the feedback the story received

The results of the First Round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge came in this week – just before Round Two was due to start. Sadly, my fairy tale Tala’s Story was not good enough to let me advance to Round Two, but it did get an honourable mention. I also received feedback from the judges, which I want to share here.

Of course I was disappointed not to go through to the second round, but even rejection is a part of the learning process. I received the judge’s comments on Thursday and on Friday (after sleeping on them) I made the following analysis. If you’re interested to read further, you may want to re-read Tala’s Story first, so follow the link in this sentence or the previous paragraph. They’ll open in another window/tab.

The judges’ comments came in an e-mail in a rather compressed format. So, for example, the comment that the story was “flawless” was immediately followed by a list of it’s flaws! However, I think I’ve teased out the comments and see they were written by at least three different people with three different reactions to the story. Here are the comments.

The Judges’ Comments


  1. So many compelling and atmospheric elements: the loveless marriage, the superstitious villagers, the exiled seer, the secret conception, the feral child, the kindly step-parents, the quest! I LOVE that the Seer doesn’t see any future as carved in stone, but gives power to individual choice in the flux of possibilities
  2. That was absolutely lovely. You understand the purpose of fairytales very well and honored the genre. Superb
  3. This has all of the elements of a fairy tale, with two powerful female characters, wronged by the word. The description of the brithmark felt very isceral [sic]


  1. You need to reduce that convoluted and rambling synopsis to a log-line which will entice the reader without giving too much away. My biggest problem is with the ending: that the dead father emerges alive (how?) and asks for forgiveness, especially as he frames the request in terms of “us.” Who, “us’? He was never truly bonded with the mother and surely not with the villagers who marginalized and murdered him. And since the girl doesn’t know what she’s forgiving, it lacks gravitas, any moral weight or satisfaction. This incredible and weak ending is especially unsatisfactory after all the richness that precedes it
  2. This story is flawless. It touches the heart and doesn’t condescend to either nihilism, cynicism, or sentimentality
  3. This feels like 2 stories in one short story. It lengthens the story but does not heighten the conflict in any one place. What is the conflict or even the obstacle in the story? Is it about the daughter trying to forgive a people she doesn’t remember? If so, why should she care , except for a restlessness that she feels?

My analysis

Honored the genre

Clearly this judgement comes from (at least) three different people, one of whom seems to have unreserved admiration for the story, which is very, very gratifying. I was delighted with the comments that I had “honored the genre”, and that Tala’s Story “touches the heart and doesn’t condescend to either nihilism, cynicism, or sentimentality”. Also “I LOVE that the Seer doesn’t see any future as carved in stone, but gives power to individual choice in the flux of possibilities.” These things were what I was aiming for, so to have the judges recognise an achievement here is a huge affirmation. Thank you, those judges!

Confused ending

After taking a break from the story, and after reviewing some of the criticism I received on the public forum – long before the judges’ comments – I could already see the story was flawed. In its ending especially. The judges’ criticism helps point me in the direction of the most fundamental weakness: a poorly established progression to a somewhat confused ending.

The confusion at the end is exemplified in what one of the judges had to say about Tala’s father. The girl has two fathers. These are her biological father (the seer, who is killed by the villagers and whose spirit plagues them) and her legal father (who is the person responsible for turning her mother away and ultimately for causing her mother’s death). If the judge can’t tell which father it is Tala forgives at the end of the story, then obviously the story needs work to clarify that.

(I posted this analysis on the NYCM forums yesterday and this morning received a comment from another NYCM writer saying she doesn’t find a confusion over which of the fathers receives Tala’s forgiveness, so perhaps the judge was nodding.)

Two for the price of one

The second thing I take from the feedback is the comment that “This feels like 2 stories in one short story.” As the judge doesn’t spell out what they mean I am grasping after interpretations. I see that the story falls into two halves. In the one is Tala’s conception and birth and the deaths of the seer and her mother. In the other is the story of her own growth, her return to the place of her mother’s death and the forgiveness that ends the story positively. However, I don’t think that’s what the judge is reacting to.

I actually wrote three responses to the prompts (see here), abandoning the first two as I realised they were too long or too complicated. The final story inherited some elements from the earlier versions. The most obvious example is Tala’s relations with the wolves. Some true fairy tales do contain elements of other stories, hinting at longer, more involved versions with sub-plots that have been lost over the years. I thought the surviving elements from the earlier versions helped make Tala’s Story more believable as a fairy tale. I choose to assume this is what the judge picked up on and was uncomfortable with.

In retrospect I could have smoothed the story out by losing the extraneous inherited elements and perhaps given myself more room to focus the story better.

One inherited element that isn’t perhaps intrusive but would have been good to change is Tala’s own name. It would have been better to have given her a name that suggests the ability to heal. She got called Tala when she was one of three sisters with different magical/inherited powers. Her ability to speak with animals was, in the end, not very relevant.


Two of the judges picked on a third problem. One judge writes: “…since the girl doesn’t know what she’s forgiving, it lacks gravitas, any moral weight or satisfaction.” Another writes: “What is the conflict or even the obstacle in the story? Is it about the daughter trying to forgive a people she doesn’t remember? If so, why should she care…”

These go to the story’s fundamental problem. I see now that I have not satisfactorily anchored the conclusion – Tala’s act of forgiveness – earlier in the story. Just at the moment I don’t see how I might have done this, but it’s a challenge to take away and think about.


All NYC Midnight stories had to have a synopsis. This was the one I wrote for Tala’s Story:

Couched as a fairy story, this tells the story of Tala, a child born with a birthmark whose mother, desperate to save her marriage, enlists the help of a seer – a psychic, but the seer is murdered, the mother and child turned out and the village cursed as a consequence. Tala grows up in ignorance of her origins but eventually returns to the village, she may perhaps raise the curse if she can find it in her heart to forgive the villagers.

My first reaction to the criticism I received over the synopsis was dismissive. I know it was poor, and part of the reason was that I didn’t understand its purpose when I wrote it. I thought I was supposed to be identifying the prompts in the story I’d written and summarising the story as an aide-memoire for the judges. Once I realised the synopsis is actually intended as a baited hook to get a reader into the story, I knew I could have made a better job of it. But by that time I’d uploaded the story and though I had some time in hand, I didn’t think it was possible to make a change.

In conclusion

Overall, it seems as though I have achieved a positive and persuasive effect with my writing. None of the judges criticised my language and at least two praised me. (“Superb”, “richness”.) So my ability to write is not an issue. The problem lies in my ability to construct the story. Looking from the side, as it were, with the judges’ comments to hand, I think that if I can lay the ground earlier to establish why Tala would forgive her (legal) father – and what she thinks she is forgiving – then I will also be able to overcome the confusion and strengthen the ending. I think that would probably give me the material I need for a decent synopsis too. I hope eventually to re-write the story to make something more satisfactory out of it and submit it elsewhere.

Watch this space!

Tala's Judgement featured image

Cut to the Chase – Scriptwriting course

To cut to the chase, this is all about a scriptwriting course with Janet van Eeden that I’ve been following since last November

When the path you’re walking on doesn’t seem to be getting where you want it to, it seems sensible to try different path. Last October, I started looking for something to do that involved creative writing but was not my historical novel. By chance I saw an advertisement on Twitter that one of my Twitter friends, Janet van Eeden, had posted – “Master the art of screenwriting: Cut to the Chase: Scriptwriting for Beginners”, it said. Why not? I thought.

Janet is a scriptwriter and playwright, journalist and lecturer in Durban in South Africa. Among other things, she is the author of A Shot at the Big Time, an award-winning short film that she produced after a successful crowdfunding campaign. She is currently involved in another campaign to finance and produce a feature length film version. Janet teaches at AFDA Durban, but the online course is a very reasonably priced one-to-one interest course. It doesn’t lead to any qualifications, but gives a practical introduction to scriptwriting for complete beginners – as it says on the label.

It’s a nine module course which rolls on at a speed to suit the participants. I started in November last year and have just received the material for Module Four. The course gives four things. An introduction to scriptwriting theory (which includes story creation and character creation – things which are useful to anybody trying to write creatively in any field of fiction). An opportunity to view (again) some great films and analyse them to see how they work. Encouragement to write a film script from the initial concept to (what I hope will be) a satisfactory completed version that can be submitted to a film production company or a film director.

The fourth thing, of course, is that it gives a personal contact with Janet who is not only very competent, but also comes across as a very nice person.

Module Three, just completed, took me into the three act structure that films follow or bend to their own ends. Analysing Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (which very strictly follows the three act structure), Batman Begins and Pulp Fiction (which both follow the structure quite faithfully despite not appearing to do so) and American Beauty, which turns out to play fast and loose with the structure (though it is there if you look).

My own script now has a fairly decent structure for Act One but the bulk of it is still vague. I decided I need to get away from historical fiction and so chose to write a contemporary story. Janet’s initial exercise was to write a monologue as spoken by a newly invented character and find a story in that. I enjoyed the exercise so much that I may have gone a little overboard – I’ve now written four other monologues for four other characters in the same story. (One ran to 5000+ words.) They each have different perspectives on the events that the first character described.

The story – script – is set in my imaginary island archipelago, the Aeylands, which occupy a space in the North Sea roughly where the Dogger Bank lies the real world. I created the Aeylands about four years ago, but the story I’m writing now is new and most of the characters also. It’s a lot of fun, and Janet seems pleased with my progress. (Though she does occasionally wonder if I’m really writing a novel rather than a film script, which makes me think that I’m probably overdoing things.) But it doesn’t matter; if at the end of everything I have a film script and a novel, I won’t complain. (I also seem to have a spin-off short story in the works as well.)

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a month or more, but other considerations – Christmas, the New Year, private life and the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, (not to mention all the time spent analysing films for the course) – have got in the way. Anyway, here we are at last. And having written this, it will feel easier to write updates as the course continues.

Featured image for cut to the chase scriptwriting course

The illustration shows cut to the chase sequences from silent movies (from various places on-line). Top left is the Keystone Cops, top right is Buster Keaton, bottom is (I think) Harold Lloyd.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

The last week I have been very taken up with the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I came across it for the first time last year and decided to give it a try. I haven’t participated in a writing competition since – well, a very long time. Probably not since I was a teenager.

If you are also in the same state of ignorance as I was before I stumbled on it, the competition is organised as follows. First you register to take part and pay an entrance fee ($55, or $45 for early registrants). Then you wait till the contest starts – at midnight on a certain day, New York time. (This year, for me, that was 6 o’clock in the morning on 23rd January.) You receive an e-mail placing you in a “heat” (group) with 34 other competitors. The “heat” is assigned a genre, a subject and a character and you have 8 days to write a 2500 word story that fits the genre and includes the subject and character assigned.

My “heat” was number 21, the genre was “fairy tale”, the subject was “a birthmark” and the character was “a psychic”.

I wanted to ask what “a psychic” was doing in a fairy tale, but after checking in a dictionary and on Wikipedia I reasoned that I could probably get away with having a fortune-teller, oracle or seer. The first story I came up with felt quite good, but after sleeping on it I decided it was a fantasy (or even a satire) rather than a fairy story, so I ditched it, sat down and thought again.

My second idea I wrote very nearly 3000 words for, before realising that:

  • not only was it way over the limit, but that
  • it was too complicated
  • and I really didn’t know where I was going with it

So tossed that one out, slept on it again and toyed around with different ideas before coming up with something I thought might work. By now we had passed the half-way mark. On Thursday and Friday (28th and 29th) I wrote and re-wrote, counted words and shaved, and eventually had a story finished by Friday evening.

Mrs SC read it and approved, so I slept on it again and on Saturday morning I finished it off (2495 words), uploaded it 19 hours before the deadline, and heaved a sigh of relief.

Now, the story as submitted, although it is couched (stylistically) as a fairy tale, doesn’t begin “Once upon a time”, doesn’t end “happily ever after”, isn’t really suitable for children and doesn’t have much in the way of magic. (It does have some, though.) Beyond that it doesn’t actually use the word “birthmark”, and my “psychic” is a seer who refuses to tell the future because the future is still undecided. I’m not at all sure how the competition judges will react, but I’m really satisfied with the story. Obviously, I’d very much like to be one of the five competitors whose story is judged of sufficient quality for us to move on to the second round. But even if I don’t get that, it will have been worthwhile taking part for the story I wrote – and for the experience of course.

If I’ve understood things correctly, the story will be available for general public appraisal on Tuesday 2nd February (72 hours after the first round closed), and if so I’ll post a link to it here and on Facebook and Twitter. The results (winners, runners up, honourable mentions) will be announced at midnight NY time on 10th March.

Assuming the story passes, then Round 2 will run for just three days between 18th and 20th March. (That will be a maximum 2000 word story.) Round 3 takes place over 24 hours on 30th April when the challenge will be to write a story of max 1500 words. Round 3 clearly drifts into the world of flash fiction – but why not? There are prizes also (see here), but really the experience is the big payoff.

4th February. “Tala’s Story” is now posted on my Articlations website. Here’s the link.

Books read 2015

Below is a list of all the books I managed to read (or at least partly read) in 2015. Thirty titles. Not nearly on a par with the days of my boyhood and youth when I could get through five or more in a week, but not too bad. Better than last year (I suspect). One of my New Year Resolutions is to read 50 books in 2016. I wonder how that will go.

Ayres, You Made Me Late Again
Banks, Consider Phlebas
Banks, The State of the Art
Bohem-Duchen, Chagall
Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People
Brayfield and Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction
Christopher, The Tripods Trilogy
Cleese, So, Anyway
Gaiman, Neverwhere
Humes, Belgium: Long united, Long Divided
Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water
Kimselius, Back to Pompeii
Kimselius, Att Skriver med Glädje
Langley and Jones, The Search for Richard III
Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road
Lispector, The Hour of the Star
Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Miéville, The City and the City
Miéville, Embassytown
Mosse, The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales
Mullan, How Novels Work
Newman and Mittelmark, How not to Write a Novel
Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens
Reynolds, The Oslo Tram
Sacks, On The Move
Schalansky, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands
Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound
Tegeborg Falkdalen, Vasa Döttrarna
Williams, Tailchaser's Song

Some of the books read 2015

So, Anyway – the Autobiography of John Cleese

So, anyway, John Cleese has written this autobiography and it’s called So, Anyway. With the exception of the final chapter, which is a sort of post-Python Reunion extra track, the story cleverly focuses on Cleese’s childhood and formative years as an author and performer and finishes during the television recording of the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As anyone who has read multiple autobiographies will know, the best part is always the author’s description of his or her childhood and growing pains. All the business of public life after the author has achieved success, fame and fortune tends to be largely namedropping and ego boosts. And then so many of the Monty Python sketches (and the Fawlty Towers episodes – and many of their backgrounds) are so well-known that regurgitating them here, while it would be, I’m sure, lapped up by the fan base (now that’s a disgusting image) would be pretty boring for the rest of us.

So it’s clever that the book dispenses with (most of) that, but it’s clever also because of the structure of the story as it is told.

The autobiography follows the conventional chronological route of childhood, youth, life as a student and the first hesitant years in which our hero discovers his talents, his professional life and the friends who will sustain him. At the same time, Cleese bakes into this mix flash-forward references to his future career with the Pythons and after, and to his philosophical, psychological and sociological interests, giving a new and different slant on the origins of some of the classic sketches. (Oh, and he’s still in love with Connie Booth – that’s what I see anyway.)

For a wider audience, I guess, Cleese is so identified with the Monty Python gang that many people are under the impression that Monty Python was where his career started. Even if you know something about his history in the Cambridge Footlights – the student revue club at the University of Cambridge – you may not know of his involvement in so many of the stage, television and radio shows that preceded Python. It was good to be reminded of these, and given a more rounded picture of John Cleese before he became a household name.

He comes across in the book as a very intelligent and generally a very kind, rather modest man. A loyal friend and who is always prepared to give credit where it’s due. There are moments though where his sharp intellect and the wicked side of his humour shine through and you get the feeling that you would not want to cross swords with him. (He has some cutting things to say about theatre and television critics, for example. You can understand why the Daily Mail is not among his more enthusiastic supporters.)

Cleese IlloI want to take a quick look in particular at what Cleese has to say about writing, and of course writing comedy.

After graduating from university John Cleese was recruited as a writer to the BBC’s Light Entertainment Department. Now, aged about 25, he had a job that involved writing comedy sketches on a regular basis.

I would start the morning with a blank sheet of paper, and I might well finish the day with a blank sheet of paper (and an overflowing waste-paper basket). There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours, and the uncertainty that produces is very scary. You never hear of accountant’s block or bricklayer’s block; but when you try to do something creative there can be no guarantee anything will happen…

But the man who had recruited him, Peter Titheradge, once a writer himself

…was able to calm my incipient panics when fruitless hours were passing. He got me to understand that, if you kept at it, material would always emerge: a bad day would be followed by a decent one, and somehow an acceptable average would be forthcoming. I took a leap of faith and my experience started to confirm this mysterious principle. (p185)

Writers – especially writers who are writing to a deadline – all struggle with the anxiety of wondering whether they will manage. It’s not just getting the words down on paper, it’s also a matter of producing something which is interesting, exciting or in John Cleese’s case funny. Cleese takes up the ambiguous nature of fear – on the one hand how it can block you, on the other hand how it may stimulate you.

Anxiety, he says, is the enemy of creativity.

The more anxious you feel, the less creative you are. Your mind ceases to play and be expansive. Fear causes your thinking to contract, to play safe, and this forces you into stereotypical thinking. And in comedy you must have innovation because an old joke isn’t funny…

Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.

On the other hand you should try to [g]et your panic in early because

Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy. (p316)

(I think it’s a comfort that, despite this insight, the young John Cleese seems to have had exactly the same problems getting started as me. I’m encouraged to think this is a rather general problem. It was always quite difficult for us [Cleese is writing with Graham Chapman] to get down to work in the morning, and we developed many strategies to postpone doing so… (p368))

Assuming you manage to get going and actually write something, however, you must be open to the prospect that you will not be able to produce something brilliant every day that you work. Cleese credits Peter Titheradge again with teaching him the importance of finding the thing that is “good enough” (this is specifically in relation to punchlines, but in my experience it applies generally).

Later in the book, once Cleese and Chapman have established a working rhythm:

Our average rate was about four minutes of screen time a day, which may not sound much, but if sustained would theoretically have given us a movie script every six weeks… (pp368-369)


John Cleese also has interesting things to say about the differences between writing sketches – even half-hour TV episodes – and whole films.

The need to keep the plot moving all the time is a hugely demanding one – the slightest moment of stagnation and a cinema audience is immediately bored (although a lot of explosions do help to sustain their attention). Add to that the following difficulty in comedy: you cannot make an audience laugh continuously for 100 minutes – human psychology and physiology will not allow it – so you have to plan a sequence of alternating peaks and troughs in the laughter while ensuring that you engage the audience’s attention fully during the passages that are not trying to be funny…

You will now understand why I have managed to write only one really good film script in 50 years (though I contributed to Life of Brian, too). (p382)

The good film script is, of course, A Fish Called Wanda.

So, anyway, I very much enjoyed reading this book, and giggling or even laughing out loud in places. The passages quoted above by no means exhaust what Cleese has to say about writing, and there is a great deal more on many other subjects too. If you know Cleese and his work (and you haven’t yet read the book) you have a treat in store. But even if you know nothing about the man and his career yet still have an interest in the writing process, the history of light entertainment or the British class system (for example) it is well worth a look.

There are also some great tips on keeping control of a primary school class when you are an untrained young teacher. Take it from me, they also work at secondary school level.

Do also pay a visit to John Cleese’s official website.

The illustration shows my copy of So, Anyway, with slips of paper in all the pages where Cleese says something funny or pithy about writing, comedy or teaching. I hate to write in books or stick things in them, but slips of paper are OK. I think it is a bit Pythonesque that they seem to be coming out of his mouth.

This review is also published on Goodreads