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

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

  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]

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK

  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.

Forgiveness

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.

Synopsis

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.

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)

Theoretically.

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

In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?


The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times

A New Blogging Policy

Earlier this year I completed 52 weeks of blogging At the Quill as part of a year-long blogging challenge (#Blogg52). It was a good exercise and a good discipline, and I have transferred the effort to my new blog about travel, Stops and Stories. However, although it is possible – just about – to blog once a week without much forward planning, there is always the stress of trying to find a topic and writing about it in time and the results are not always satisfactory. Clearly I need to be better organised.

Now, one of my fellow Blogg52-ers, Anna Hellqvist, is using her blog to present aspects of good practice for other bloggers. She has written some very good articles over the weeks. I don’t always agree with her as I feel her perspective on blogging is rather skewed towards the commercial, and for me that tends to devalue what she writes. Also, as someone who has been blogging on and off for about 14 years I have a residual feeling that I know it all – even though I patently do not.

I know that I don’t know it all not only because I get into such a sweat when I haven’t planned ahead, not only because I am disappointed more often than satisfied with the blog entries that I write, but also because a number of Anna’s tips have been valuable reminders of things I’d forgotten. And occasionally she has taught me things that were quite new to me.

So, I decided to swallow my pride and smother my resistance to being told what to do and try to follow some of her advice. My hope is that it will help me blog more frequently, both here and on Stops and Stories, and perhaps improve the consistency of my blog entries.

To begin with I have been looking at Anna’s blog entries for Blogg52 from June this year. As Anna’s blog is in Swedish (Blogg52 is a Swedish challenge and at present I’m the only person following it who’s writing in English), I thought I could give a summary of the steps I’ve taken so far to organise myself better. Below is my plan for Stops and Stories.

I can say that while most of the points in the plan come from Anna’s suggestions I have added one or two of my own.

Depending on how successfully I can follow the plan for the next couple of months I may post an adaptation of this on the Stops and Stories website. Just at the moment though, because Stops and Stories is about travel while At the Quill is about writing, it seems appropriate to discuss this here rather than there. If you’re interested, I’ll be revisiting this in future articles here At the Quill.

What is the purpose of Stops and Stories?

  • A record of my travels now I am based in Brussels.
  • An exploration and expansion of my ability to write about travel.
  • Foundations for (a) future travel book(s).
  • A cross-platform link with Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, (Freesound), (YouTube), TripAdvisor, (GoodReads), Ello…
  • Development of a network of readers (and listeners).
  • An archive that future readers will be able to explore.

Who is your target audience? Who are you writing for?

  • Myself and…
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel who either travel themselves or are armchair travellers.
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel writing – in (fictional/semi-fictional) stories about, and (“true”) accounts of, travels both contemporary and historical.

Who is your inspiration?
Patrick Leigh Fermor (http://patrickleighfermor.org/)
Jonathan Raban (http://jonathanraban.com/)

(I expect to be extending this list.)

What are your goals?

  • To write an illustrated text – if possible including a sound recording of the same – once a week for at least a year.
  • To attract readers and returning readers/listeners. The initial target is to build up from the handful each week who read my texts at present to 100+/week.
  • To enter into a conversation with readers/listeners either in the comments section of the blog or on social media.

What are you going to write about?

  • Places visited
  • Stories heard and overheard
  • writing (reviews)
  • The urban and rural landscapes
  • Seascapes
  • Soundscapes
  • Scents and smells
  • Photography
  • Modes of transport
  • Maps and guidebooks
  • Art and architecture
  • Food and drink
  • History and future visions
  • Museums and exhibitions
  • Events and celebrations
  • Action and adventure
  • Poetry and literature related to travel
  • Memory and memoires
  • Philosophy and meditation
  • Humour

How often and when will you publish?

  • I aim to publish at least one article a least once a week, hopefully including a sound recording published on Soundcloud.
  • The day of publication will be Wednesday.

In order to publish on Wednesday I need to organise myself as follows:

  • On Thursday or Friday brainstorm articles for Stops and Stories – choose one or two. (By choosing a couple of articles each week I hope to build up a bank of articles so that, as time goes by, the process I’m describing here will not be quite so hand to mouth.)
  • Over the weekend carry out research for the articles, take photos, record ambient sound and make notes.
  • On Monday choose one article for publication.
  • On Tuesday draft the article.
  • On Wednesday, edit the article, illustrate it, record it, publish it.
  • If it wasn’t possible on Wednesday, on Thursday publish the recording on Soundcloud.
  • Begin again

Writing Elin’s Story

There has been a bit of a hiatus here At the Quill. I’ve been busy getting my travel blog up and running at Stops and Stories, but I am returning now as planned to publish occasional pieces here. And my first piece must be about Elin’s Story.

Elin’s Story is an account of the adventures of Elin Ulsdotter, sometimes called Helena Marchioness Northampton, sometimes called Helena Snakenborg, in the period from about 1563 to about 1578. This is a true story, though I’m writing it as an historical novel.

Elin was born in 1549 or 1550 – probably in January or February 1550 as an uncertainty about years of birth in the period is usually tied up with those months. She was born in Sweden, in all probability at her father’s estate of Fyllingarum in a Östergötland. In 1565, when she was about 15, she was taken to England in the train of Princess Cecilia Vasa, and left there as a maid at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. When she was 21 she married the Queen’s step uncle, William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, and on his death five months later returned to the Queen’s Court as the dowager Marchioness Northampton, a lady in waiting.

In 1576 she made a second, secret marriage to Thomas Gorges, one of the Queen’s Gentleman and very distant relative of Queen Elizabeth. The secret was uncovered and she was banished from Court accused of high treason. Her husband spent time in prison, possibly in the Tower of London, while she was placed under house arrest in his London home. However, this dark cloud passed, the couple were reinstated at court and Elin lived on into her 80s, outliving the Queen by a good 20 years. She and her second husband are entombed at Salisbury Cathedral.

I began writing Elin’s Story seven years ago, and it’s gone through a number of transformations along the way. This year I started outlining the first and second books (working titles The Long Way to London and London: Credit and Debit) and am now trying to apply the NaNoWriMo methodology to get a first draft written.

For readers who are unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month) is an international “let’s all try to write a novel” exercise which takes place in November every year. The objective is to write a 50,000 word novel within the 30 days of November. Participants post information about their progress and pep one another and at the end of it, if they’ve completed their effort, they can get a certificate. I know some writers use it as a device to help them focus and get the first draft of a novel written. (Others go straight from writing for the NaNoWriMo to self publication with barely a pause between, with all the quality that implies.)

I am absolutely sure that November is the worst possible month for me to get involved, and so I’ve never even considered participating. However I do like the idea of trying to force myself to write daily and copiously simply in order to tell the story and get a beginning-to-end draft written. So, I decided that this September I would focus on Elin’s Story – and in particular on The Long Way to London – and see what I can achieve.

My target is to write 2000 words a day for Elin and my ambition is to write daily throughout September. Both these targets are necessarily flexible. I managed to fall ill soon after the beginning of September and let myself off writing for three days as I was running a temperature, which means it wasn’t until yesterday that I completed my first seven days of writing.

So far, my best day (Wednesday 9th) saw me write 2722 words, my worst day was yesterday (Thursday 10th) with only 735 words. My running total stands at 11,228 which means my daily average is 1600 words. Not so bad.

I’ve covered introducing my heroine, the death of her father and her relationship with her family especially her sister Gertrud. I’ve got an appointment for her to meet Princess Cecilia and encouraged her to say goodbye to her home. Elin’s sections of the story are told in the first person, but to give a variety of perspectives I’ve also introduced a secondary character, George North, an Englishman working for Princess Cecilia, whose story is told from a less intimate point of view. George is in Stockholm at the moment, waiting to meet King Erik XIV.

I’ll report more here later on, but if you’re interested in a day by day account of words written, you can always follow me on Facebook.
🙂

The Blogg52 challenge

This is my 52nd entry At the Quill tagged #Blogg52 and want to spend a little time meditating on this blog challenge and the value of blog challenges generally.

I came to Blogg52 after an invitation from Susan Casserfelt, one of the two curators (the other being Anna Hellqvist). It wasn’t a personal invitation, I think Susan sent it out to all the members of Egenutgivarna, but it came at just the right time. I was looking for something to give me a reason to blog on a regular basis, but the Blogg100 challenge that some of my friends were taking part in seemed far too demanding. Blogg100 encourages participants to post blog entries one a day for a hundred days; by contrast Blogg52 calls for one blog entry a week over a year.

I started blogging with the hashtag Blogg52 in March last year (here’s my first entry). Clearly I didn’t quite manage one blog entry every week or I’d have finished in March 2015. However, counting backward from today this is my 52nd entry.

On balance, I’ve enjoyed participating and the discipline has been very good for me. I’ve tried to follow the rules set out on Anna H’s website and have read, I think, the majority of all the entries that everyone taking part in the challenge has posted. I’ve also managed to comment on at least one – and often more than one – blog entry every week, though as I’ve been reading many of them on my mobile phone it’s often been easier to post comments on Facebook rather than on people’s blog sites.

It has to be said that I haven’t found all of the entries interesting – some have been written on subjects about which I am indifferent others have just not caught my attention – but many have been interesting and most weeks I think I have learnt things. And I’ve certainly been entertained.

I’ve also “met” some really nice people here – people whose comments on my own writing I have looked forward to receiving.

From the beginning I was aware that, as the only person blogging in English in a Swedish challenge, I was putting up a barrier between my writing and potential readers that went beyond subject matter and style. I know from personal experience in the reverse situation that, however good my receptive skills in Swedish may be, reading longer texts – especially more literary ones – requires a greater effort and I remain “tone deaf” to many of the nuances and references. I presume this is the same for Swedish speakers coming to my efforts. Yet I have been delighted to see (with the help of Google analytics and WordPress statistics) that many people have come to my blog posts over the months, even if not so many have been motivated to leave comments on the website or Facebook. (For links to the most popular entries see below the bar at the bottom of this entry.)

Of course, I greatly appreciate the comments I’ve received from everyone who’s made the effort, but especially from my more regular commentators: Kim, Eva and Pernilla.

In fact, at the very beginning, I was concerned enough at the thought that other Blogg52ers might think I was an English-language imperialist muscling in where I was not wanted that I actually asked the curators if it was okay for me to join in as an English-language blogger. I’m grateful that they were so welcoming.
#blogg52
I’ve already mentioned discipline as one of the most important values I think taking part in a blog challenge has. Even though I missed a number of weeks on a couple of different occasions throughout the year – mostly when real-life intruded – just knowing that on Wednesday I was going to try to publish a blog entry, that some people would be looking out for it and that I might disappoint them if I didn’t manage were powerful motivators.

Some days – as today – I have found myself composing the entry actually on publication day. More often, recently, I have managed to plan my entry a couple of days in advance and draft the entry beforehand. Even today’s piece I’ve actually been turning over in my mind for a couple of days now, though as I write this sentence it is 12:59.

Along with the discipline, motivation and planning, following a blog challenge has also helped me to better compose my entries.

I had an idea at the beginning that I should restrict myself to a maximum of 800 words. It was Kim who asked me, Why? And as I had no good answer I gave up that idea. Instead I find myself writing pieces that run naturally to about 1200 words – sometimes a couple of hundred more, sometimes two or three hundred less. Within this length I’m learning how to pace myself – to tell a story when I’m telling a story, or to present an idea when that’s what I have to share – so that there is a rhythm to my writing. I try to compose a good introduction, something to hook a reader’s interest. I follow it with a couple of higher and lower points along the way and a solid conclusion. I know I haven’t achieved this with every piece that I’ve written, and I know that some weeks I have been considerably more successful than others, but it’s my impression that I have become a better writer (if only of blog entries 🙂 ) as the challenge has gone on.

So where do I go from here? I see two ways forward.

First, I’m going to start looking for English language blog challenges and if possible find something which has a similar pace to Blogg52. Once a week for a year, or once a week for a quarter for example. I still don’t think I’m up to attempting a blog entry a day. Blog challenges are not so easy to find in the great Ocean of the Internet – it looks like I need to be a member of a writers’ group – but if any readers out there would like to recommend something, please do so!

Second, as I really don’t want to give up my contact with my Blogg52 friends, and as it seems as though the Blogg52 challenge is rolling on, I’m looking forward to continuing here. However I think I need to change gear somehow. Unless there are howls of protest, from next week I’m going to respond to the challenge from more than one of my websites. Specifically, I’ll keep on writing an occasional piece about writing At the Quill, but I want to introduce you to my new website of travel writing, Stops and Stories. I mentioned it in an earlier entry and it’s just about ready to go public so I hope that next week’s Blogg52 contribution will be on that website.

So, there we have it, just about 1200 words and my fifty-second Blogg52 entry. Thank you for reading.


These are the ten most popular posts At the Quill tagged #Blogg52.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Dr Dolittle

Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I revisit a series of books I enjoyed as a child. (Also, it seems, when I’m stuck for a blog entry.) The books are the stories of Dr Dolittle.

Dr Dolittle and horseIn several places in the books when the doctor and his “family” are killing time, someone is sure to ask the doctor for a story and he usually says that he can’t think of one, but then turns out his pockets. His pockets are full of all sorts of things that he’s picked up here and there over time and there’s always something he can tell a story about.

It’s a good technique, and you don’t have to fill your pockets with odds and ends. Just look around and let your eye light on something. If you’re at home you might look at the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, the furniture or animals in your room, or what you can see out of the window. If you’re out, look at the people passing by or the decorations on the buildings, adverts, snatches of conversation, smells, insects, rubbish. Ask yourself, Does thing this have a story to tell me? Why does it look this way? Who used it? Who threw it away and why? Or did they drop it – is it lost? Who is this person? Where is she going and how do I know?

I’ve even used this technique when I’ve been teaching English conversation as a hook to start people talking, telling stories about themselves or their surroundings.

Dr Dolittle, Jip the dog and Dab-Dab the duck aboard shipIf you search for Dr Dolittle on the Internet, as I’ve just done, the majority of the hits you get take you to the Eddie Murphy films from the turn of the recent century or to the 1967 film with Rex Harrison as the doctor. But Dr Dolittle is much older than that. The author, Hugh Lofting, wrote the germ of his Dr Dolittle stories in letters to his children from trenches and battlefields of the First World War. Of all the writing and pictures to come out of the First World War, surely the illustrated Dr Dolittle stories were the most unlikely.

Hugh Lofting was British but married and resident in the USA when the war broke out. In 1916 he was called up, travelled back to Britain and saw service on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. His experiences in the trenches were, he said, by turns too horrible or too boring to put into letters home to his young family – his daughter was four years old in 1917, his son two. Besides, his children wanted stories and pictures.

Lofting looked around and his eye lit on the animals that were conscripted to fight in the war alongside the humans. Years later he wrote:

If we made the animals take the same chances we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.

And so the idea came to him of a country doctor, disillusioned with human society, who prefers the company of animals and who learns to speak with them in order to be able to take care of them.

The letters written 1917 to 1918 became the basis for Lofting’s first novel The Story of Dr Dolittle. Or, to give it its full title, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed.

Dr Dolittle - The End


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The illustrations are by Hugh Lofting and taken from the edition of The Story of Dr Dolittle “Digitized for the Microsoft Corporation by Internet Archive in 2007 from New York Public Library”. Hugh Lofting died in 1947, so his works are under copyright in Europe for another two years – but Microsoft claim the book is out of copyright in the USA as it was published in 1923. If anyone from the Estate of Hugh Lofting objects to my using these illustrations, please get in touch and I will remove them. But I hope you won’t.

Johanna

Johanna
Johanna
All the characters in a novel need to have names. Generally speaking they need to have names that readers will recognise as names and be able to pronounce. For minor characters it might be possible to get away with labels (the guard, the governor, the nurse) but for your main characters a real name is essential. As I’ve mentioned before, names are handles which allow readers – but also the writer – to get a grip on a character. They are also boxes that contain information about the character. Some of this information will derive from the name itself, but most you will add when you introduce the character and as you develop the story and give the character room to act. If you’ve done this successfully, when your character’s name comes up further on in the story your reader will associate a whole slew of information with the character which you won’t need to repeat. So choosing names for your characters – especially for your key characters – is important.

Sometimes names come very easily, sometimes it takes a long time to find them. Last week, my fellow Blogg52er Anna Hellqvist took up this issue and described how long it took her to find the name of one of her characters. I’ve had a similar problem.

In the first part of Elin’s Story I needed an extra point of view character who would be a bit older, more knowing and stand to one side of my heroine. This character offers an alternative perspective on events that otherwise come mediated through Elin. The character also provides a critical view of Elin herself. The character needs to be very close to Elin and this meant I had to make her female and put her into a very similar position, allowing her to share much of Elin’s experiences.

As I am writing an historical novel and my cast of characters includes “real” people, I already have a list of names I have to use. This is both an advantage and a bit of a straitjacket. The historical Elin travelled from Sweden to England in the company of Princess Cecilia and the names of almost all the company are in the historical record. Arriving in London the Princess and her women made an impression and are described – at least, their dresses are described – by eyewitnesses. The Princess had six women in her entourage. Elin was one, and four of the others are named, but it was the unnamed sixth that caught my eye. She would be my extra p.o.v. character.

But what to call her?

I already had an idea of her personality. I had decided she resembled the character of Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Becky is a subsidiary character and not a particularly attractive one, but she is very astute, very sharp (and so we see Thackeray also choosing his characters’ names with care). Many people find Becky more memorable than Vanity Fair’s principal female character, Amelia. Obviously I don’t want to create a subsidiary character that is more engaging than Elin, but Elin will not be modelled on Amelia. However I do want some of Becky’s acidity.

My first thought was to call my character Rebecca, but a bit of research showed me that this name did not become common as a Christian name until the 1600s. My novel is set in the middle of the 1500s and this character had to have been born in the 1540s. My back story for her gives her an uncertain ancestry, but not a Jewish ancestry. Rebecca was simply not possible.

Popular Swedish women’s names of the period were Kristina, Anna, Margarita, Birgitta and their variants – indeed, among the Princess’s women I already had two Kristinas, one Anna and one Brita. I could have gone for something more exotic – I considered a Polish name or a Dutch name – but eventually I decided I needed a name that was plausible and did not draw attention to itself. I settled on Johanna.

Johanna has a similar biblical quality to Rebecca but is a possible Christian name in the period, perhaps especially in Germany. It wasn’t too far removed from Anna but far enough for there not to be a confusion. (I was already trying to find a way of distinguishing the two Kristinas and didn’t want to go out of my way to create a similar problem.) Johanna it was, and she has grown into her name very nicely.

Johanna is an orphan. She was a ward of the court of King Sigismund of Poland and placed by the King as a maid in the court of his sister Katarina. This is the Princess known to Swedish history as Katarina Jagellonica. In 1562 Katarina married Johan, Duke of Finland, and took her women with her to Åbo. Following Duke Johan’s arrest and imprisonment for treason against his brother King Erik XIV in 1563, Princess Katarina was interned with him and her entourage was forcibly reduced. Some were sent home to Poland, others were “redistributed”. Johanna was added to Princess Cecilia’s court.

A first name is not enough however. At this period in Sweden almost everybody, including aristocrats, identifies themselves with their given Christian name and their patronym – their father’s name. So my heroine is Elin Ulfsdotter, her father was Ulf Henriksson and her mother was Agnes Knutsdotter. Even the Princess Cecilia might be called Cecilia Gustavsdotter after her father King Gustav Eriksson.

Although Johanna’s father was a mercenary who fought for various German princes before taking service with King Sigismund in Poland, Johanna claims he was a descendant of the Norse Earls of Orkney. This means she can also reasonably follow Scandinavian practice. She calls herself Jarlsdotter.

It is an open question whether her father was actually called Jarl or was indeed descended from the Orkney Earls. Johanna tells different stories about him, some of which don’t seem to add up. When challenged she usually turns the question back on the questioner, but sometimes she admits that she was very young when her father died. She has no memory of her mother.

Even though 16th century Swedish aristocrats commonly use their first names and patronyms, they were still very conscious of their membership of certain families. Family relationships were the social networks of the age – a source of pride, assurance, influence and aid. Princess Cecilia was very proud of her family name, Vasa. When Ulf Henriksson died leaving his wife Agnes Knutsdotter to take care of six children under the age of 18 – and four of them girls – Agnes fell back on her family connections. She was a member of the Lillie family and Ulf a member of the Bååt. It was almost certainly through these connections that Agnes was able to place Elin as a maid at the court of Princess Cecilia.

Johanna has no family connections in Sweden, she cannot call on her family for help but must live by her wits. However, she must still have a family name to be proud of and use from time to time to underline her claim to be an aristocrat.

Having been thwarted in my original plan to link Johanna’s character to Becky Sharp with the same Christian name, I decided to explore the possibility of giving her a familial connection instead. I decided that Johanna’s family name would be some variant on sharp. One modern Swedish word for sharp is vass (it can also mean reed), in Icelandic and Faroese – the two languages closest to Norn, the dialect of Orkney – I find hvass, hvassi and vassur. I decided to make Johanna a member of the Vassi family. Vassi seems just about possible as a family name (though I’ve not been able to find it anywhere). It also seems a bit made up. I think it suits Johanna.

And so, I present to you Johanna Jarlsdotter Vassi!

Johanna
Johanna

The picture of Johanna on this page started life as the 1525/1526 portrait of Sibylle von Cleve als Braut by Lucas Cranach the elder reproduced from the copy on Wikimedia.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.