At the Quill goes #Blogg52


I suspect this blog entry will be read by more people than usual, most of them new to me and probably native Swedish speakers, so I shall try to keep it short and sweet.

At the Quill was conceived as my blog about writing, reading and self-publishing, and started with high hopes last summer (2013), but for various reasons has been languishing throughout the winter. I’ve been wanting to breath new life into it and the opportunity just came along to participate in a blog challenge I think I might be able to meet.

#Blogg52 is the challenge. It’s being is being co-ordinated and curated by two Swedish authors, Susan Casserfelt and Anna Hellqvist, so most of the participants are likely to be writing in Swedish. I think it very generous of them to have included me in the roll call as I don’t write in Swedish. However I do plan to commit myself to the requirements of the challenge:

  • to publish at least one entry every Wednesday for the next year
  • to announce the publication on Twitter using #blogg52
  • to announce the publication on Facebook in the #blogg52 Facebook group
  • to read other people’s entries – if not everybody’s then at least one person’s every week – and offer comment and encouragement

The latter, I may try to give on the relevant website in Swedish (with my standing apology for my own poor command of that language). And of course if anyone feels like commenting on any of my pieces, Swedish is perfectly OK. I can read it, other #Blogg52 participants will be able to read it. Anglophone visitors will get a frisson of Nordic Noir and if they want a rough translation there’s always Google. (More on my feelings about of the Google translation engine, no doubt, in coming weeks.)

Another thing that may happen is that I use someone else’s blog entry as a jumping off point for one of my own. For example, at the time of writing the latest entry on Susan’s website is “Hur hittar författaren på namnen?” (How do writer’s find names?) I think names are important and I think some writers don’t give them the attention they deserve, so right there is a potential entry. The latest on Anna’s website is “Att börja en början och att avsluta på ett bra sätt” in which she writes about the difficulties in finding good beginnings and satisfactory endings for books. Another excellent topic.

Susan and Anna write that their objective with #Blogg52 – for themselves – is to build up a bank of their own texts which they will be able to collect into book form and publish. This isn’t a requirement for everybody who takes part, but seems like a good motivator. For myself, my plan is to try to write entries of between 600 and 800 words and not to ramble on too much.

What are my chances of completing the challenge?

Up until not very long ago I would have said they were remote. I have a bad track record of starting things and not finishing them. But I have managed for more than a year now to publish a daily photograph from Gothenburg on my photo blog so I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to do this too.

Apart from the photo blog, which may – or may not – lead to me publishing a photo book, I have a couple of other book projects in hand which I’ll be writing about. One is my historical novel, Elin’s Story, the other is a book of poetry with the working title 5050-ish. These are the two private projects that are uppermost in my mind, but I’m also currently writing teaching material for two employers and translating texts for various customers through my firm JNELS. I anticipate that all of these will feed into my blogging here over the next year.

Short and sweet was my goal for this entry. Well, I’m now pushing towards the 700 word mark (and right there is another potential blog entry – how Swedes don’t tend to think in terms of words but prefer pages to describe the length of long texts). As for how sweet this is, you decide. But now I’ll bring this to an end.

Till next time, cheerio!


Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales by Ursula K LeGuinA reveiw of Orsinian Tales by Ursula K LeGuin

It takes a certain skill to write short stories. It takes a different skill to write novels. Some novelists are dreadful short story writers and some short story writers can’t write novels for toffee. Ursula K LeGuin falls into that slim category of writer who commands the skills of both the novelist and the short story writer – and much else besides

Although she is better known for her science-fiction, LeGuin has turned her hand to many different genres and forms over the years. In her stories from the imaginary central European country of Orsinia she focused her talents on historical fiction. The 11 stories that make up the Orsinian Tales are each set in a different historical period from 1150 (“The Barrow”), by way of 1640 (“The Lady of Moge”), to 1965 (“The House”). However LeGuin’s interest in politics and recent history, and her romantic vision, lead her to focus on the 20th century.

The book opens with “The Fountains” of Versailles in which Dr Kereth, a cytologist, without planning it, finds himself with the opportunity to seek political asylum in France, escaping from the communist state that Orsinia has become by 1960. His choice is typically Ursuline – by which I mean not obvious, but one hundred per cent believable. The book closes, appropriately, with “Imaginary Countries”, a lovely little account of the last days of a summer holiday that resonates with warmth and a nostalgia for childhood.

In between, the stories visit people in different classes of society, in different periods, but all struggling with universal human issues. Birth and faith in “The Barrow”, love and longing especially in “Conversations at Night” and “Brothers and Sisters”, sanity and murder in “Ile Forest”. There is a search for freedom in many of the stories, perhaps most in “The Fountains” and “The Road East”, loyalty and betrayal figure in “The Lady of Moge”, exclusion and inclusion in “A Week in the Country”, the art of knowing and being oneself is another theme of “Brothers and Sisters”. In “An Die Musik” the focus is the creative impulse itself: Why write (in this case music) in a world where creativity has dubious economic value and bestows no material power?

Although each story contains indications of the period of time in which it set, each story also concludes with a year, and sometimes if you’re not sure exactly when the story is taking place coming across the date at the end can cause you to re-evaluate what you’ve read. For me in particular “Imaginary Countries” is made all the more poignant by discovering at the end that the story is set in 1935. Immediately I find myself calculating: Stanislas is 14 so he’ll be called up to the army in three or four years and find himself fighting perhaps against a German invader, perhaps alongside German allies in the Second World War. And what will happen to Josef and his future at the seminary? What will happen to Paul and Zida and the Baroness?

Although at least one of the stories, “An Die Musik”, was first printed as early as 1961 (it was LeGuin’s first published short story), the Orsinian Tales were collected and published in 1976. Of her science fiction, LeGuin has said she often writes a short story as a lead-in to writing a novel, or as a pendant piece to a novel completed. On first glance, the Tales fit this scenario, preceding by three years the 1979 release of Malafrena. Malafrena, LeGuin’s first published historical novel, is also set in Orsinia, sometime in the middle of the 19th century.

But appearances can be deceptive. In her essay “A Citizen of Mondath” (Foundation #4 1973), she describes the Orsinian stories as her way into creative writing, the means by which she learned her craft. By 1961 she had written four novels set in Orsinia, none of which she could publish. Her shift into writing science-fiction, which took place in that same year proved the door to publishing success, but she never forgot Orsinia, and I for one am glad of that.

The Orsinian Tales are a good read, and good to re-read. I’ve just re-read them now after a break of at least 10 years – and I first read them in 1980 – and I testify that they hold up. At the end of “An Die Musik”, the protagonist Ladislas Gaye thinks about music in a way I believe it is relevant to think about writing.

What good is music? None… and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘You are irrelevant’; and, arrogant and gentle as a god to the suffering man it says only, ‘Listen.’ For being saved is not the point. Music says nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses men build themselves, that they may see the sky.

I like to think that good writing does that too. And by that criteria – as by many another – LeGuin’s writing is good writing.

Visit Ursula K LeGuin’s own website here

Here be Dragons

DragonThere is a scene in The Player of Games, a science fiction novel by Iain M Banks, in which the protagonist Jernau Gergeh, while swimming backstroke, is dictating into a microphone that is tracking his movements up and down a swimming pool. I have to confess that even I found that unlikely, but what an exciting idea!

My ideal has me leaning back in my armchair, eyes closed, feet up and arms relaxed, speaking my novel into the air while somewhere across the room a computer records my voice and puts my words into accurate text. Alternatively I see myself walking in the countryside, pausing by inspiring scenery and dictating descriptions that, far away a computer in my home turns into immortal poetry.

Every few years over the last 15 or so I have invested in the latest example of voice recognition software in the hope that now my dream will come true. It hasn’t – yet – but hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I can’t remember who made the first software I tried out, but I know I had a stint with IBM’s ViaVoice and now I’m working with Dragon NaturallySpeaking from a company called Nuance.

I’ve been using Dragon fairly regularly for the last couple of years, and I wrote a blog entry on the subject for my main website a year ago which began in the same way as this, but I’ve been meaning to update it since the upgraded version of the software came out. I’m now using version DNS 12.5 with a Bluetooth microphone, and it is possible for me at last to get up from my chair walk across the room and dictate while on the move. (And you can’t see me, but that’s exactly what I’m doing at the moment.)

I use Dragon principally for translating. That is to say I look at the Swedish text I have to work with, I reformulate it in my mind and then I dictate the translated version into a Word document. This works rather well.

I’ve also used the programme to transcribed texts. This is a bit more complicated – I have to have the sound input through an earphone in my one ear while the microphone hangs off the other ear. But if I’ve once got it set up right it’s quite efficient.

And of course I’m using the Dragon software also to write blog entries. Not all by any means, but some.

What I still can’t do is use it to dictate and create fiction.

The instructions I have tell me that I should speak in full sentences and as naturally as possible so that Dragon can identify correctly what I’m trying to say. But I can’t dictate like that when I’m writing a story. I dictate as I think: I say something, I change my mind, I repeat myself, I hesitate, I pause for thought, I go back and change words, phrases, punctuation. And Dragon doesn’t usually appreciate me doing this.

All the errors the software generates seem to be multiplied when I speak in my authorial style. Pronouns are misrepresented and punctuation marks are sometimes written out in full (often incorrectly, so “full stop” is printed as “Well, stop!”). Hesitation noises get transcribed as random conjunctions or prepositions, and sometimes words I’m dictating are interpreted as commands. If I’m not looking at the screen when that happens – on one of my peregrinations around the room – I come back to discover that the computer is merrily searching for something bizarre on the Internet. (And just there, when I said “commands”, the software cheerfully opened the “My Commands Editor” input box!)

On the plus side, a very positive feature of using dictation software – once you’ve got the damn thing to accept that you want to dictate in British rather than American English – is that it spells everything correctly. Of course this has its down side too. It means you don’t always spot the homophones that Dragon has chosen to use instead of the word you were actually thinking of. (To/two/too seems to be a particular problem, but even “our” for “are” or “year” for “ear” – to mention too two – damn it – that have happened while I’ve been working on this.) And it still gets some grammar wrong (writing for example “use” for “used” when I can’t see why it should make the mistake, given that the word is used in context). But generally speaking I’m quite satisfied with it.

To be sure, I’m still a long way from my ideal, but I’ve come round to understanding that I can’t really blame Dragon for that. No matter how many authors I read of who could – who can – dictate reams of text without hesitation (Winston Churchill, Dan Brown) I’ve come to recognise that dictating creatively just isn’t my forte.

Visions, revisions, toast and tea

Falling quills blue-greyMy vision of At the Quill has undergone considerable revision of late.

I seem to have spent an unconscionable amount of time over the last month working on the appearance of this website. As if the appearance was more significant than the content. The colour scheme has passed through several different configurations and still hasn’t settled down. The background image likewise. I’m trying out a pattern of falling quills at the moment.

And yet, the appearance is important. I know from my own experience when I come to a new website if the first impression is that the site is cluttered or too busy and seems difficult to read, or if the colours are too strident or ugly, I’m more than likely to skip out again. So I struggle on.

And of course spending time on the look of the website means I don’t have to spend time producing content.

I sometimes think my psychology is a remarkable thing. Example: first I decide to create a website where I can talk about writing and reading and self publishing – all things I find very interesting. Then I waste my time faffing around with background images and colour and coding and put off actually doing any of the writing I planned to fill the website with.

And I’ve done it before. Oh yes, this is clearly a behavioural pattern. I should rent my brain out to student psychologists. There must be at least a couple of doctoral theses in there.

Then it strikes me – horrors – maybe this isn’t unique. Maybe prevarication is the essence of humanity and I’m just being boringly normal.

Looking back at my notes I see that my intention was to kick off this blog with an article about my other blogs – especially Articulations, which is where I am publishing poems and short prose. Instead I was taken by surprise by the sad news of Iain Banks’ death last week, which occasioned my first published post.

That my second post was a review of Back to Pompeii had everything to do with trying to keep a deadline and a promise. Up until recently I had not been certain whether I wanted to publish book reviews here, but my commitment to reviewing Kim Kimselius’ novel tipped the balance.

I joined the social network site for readers, GoodReads, a week or so ago and the plan is to duplicate reviews of books there and here. The books I’ll be reviewing will be either much loved texts from my own library, or new books, especially ones that relate in some way to reading, writing or self publishing.

I chose to start my GoodReads reviewing career with Back to Pompeii because I’d undertaken to review it for the Review Tree project currently being run by Egenutgivarna, the Swedish self-publishers’ association of which I’m a member. And there, you see, there’s another topic for a blog post that I planned to write but haven’t got round to yet.

No matter. There will be time…

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

You see, even Prufrock was a prevaricator, yet he still starred in a fantastic modernist poem. There’s hope for me.

Back to Pompeii

Back to Pompeii - coverBack to Pompeii by Kim Kimselius is the first in a series of novels that follow the adventures of Ramona, a schoolgirl, and her boyfriend Theo in different historical periods and places. The series has been a success in Sweden and some of the earlier volumes have been translated into other languages. Back to Pompeii is the first English translation (by Jennifer Lee), and was published in 2013.

Ramona, a Swedish schoolgirl, is taking part in an educational trip to the ruins at Pompeii with the rest of her class. Plagued by a headache, she steals away from the tour to rest in the cool shade of a bakery. She falls asleep, and wakes to find herself 2000 years back in time, in a very lively Pompeii on the eve of the volcanic eruption that will bury the city and its people in ash.

Ramona is torn between delight and fear. Delight at finding herself in ancient Pompeii among the living people whose plaster death-casts she has seen in the museum, and fear of the coming destruction. More, as she has no idea whether she will be able to return to her own time, she fears even if she survives the eruption that she may be stranded in this ancient world for the rest of her life.

One theme of Back to Pompeii is the value of friendship. Ramona’s fears are quietened when she meets and is befriended by Theo, a boy of her own age. Theo is an upper-class Roman who is first beguiled by Ramona’s bare legs. (She was transported back in time dressed exactly as a modern teenager on holiday in Italy.) Theo borrows appropriate clothes for her from his rather haughty sister Livia , and then presents her around as a cousin from Rome. In Theo’s home Ramona is welcomed as his friend.

The story is an enjoyable and easy read (it is quite a short book – about 50,000 words) and it wears its historical costume lightly. By this I mean the book conveys a deal of information about life in Pompeii – about dress and custom and what may have happened when Vesuvius erupted – well integrated with an exciting story.

Ramona is a believable teenager, and for the most part so is Theo. If Theo’s family and friends seem surprisingly laid back about Ramona’s sudden appearance and Theo’s friendship with her, then that is perhaps explained away by the conventions of the genre. This is a time-slip novel that isn’t interested in the how or the why of the slip. It is neither science-fiction nor fantasy (no time machine, no magic), the slip in time is simply a vehicle to put a modern girl into an historical milieu.

Ramona’s attempts to explain certain things modern kids would take for granted are quite funny. An aeroplane, for example.

“Airplanes look almost like that bird… but they have engines… An engine is like a donkey… It gives power to the airplane so it can fly. Just like the donkey gives the stone power to grind the corn.”

“A donkey on a bird? … Anyone can see there’s not enough room for a donkey on a bird!”

Kim Kimselius is rather good at pulling her readers up short, making them reconsider their assumptions about their own time and about the historical period her characters are living in. Speaking for a moment as a teacher, I can see a particular value in the novel as a teaching tool to introduce the idea of prejudice and to give concrete examples to debate without personalising the issue.

The book highlights one particular aspect of ancient Roman society: slavery. To begin with, Ramona fears she may be sold as a slave, a fear that recedes as she gets to know Theo and his family. But the presence of slaves as a class in Pompeii is never allowed to fade away and at a critical moment Ramona’s early fears are made real again when she and Theo are separated. The threat of violence and sexual abuse that Roman slaves must live with runs like a cold current just below the cheerful surface of this novel.

The impending doom that hangs over Pompeii is another undercurrent that takes a dramatic centre stage in the latter part of the novel. In good disaster movie fashion, Ramona sets out to save the lives of the people she has met – and the reader cheers her on. But she is frustrated at (almost) every turn. No one believes her. How is it possible that Vesuvius, green with vineyards, is really a dormant volcano about to blow its top?

Yet it does, and the choking ash that finally and inevitably lays a suffocating blanket over the city is frighteningly described.

Obviously, Tillbaka till Pompeji was written with a Swedish audience in mind. How would it work with an English audience? I imagine a frisson of curiosity when a young English reader realises that Ramona and her fellow school children think of and talk to their teacher as “Elisabeth” rather than, say, “Ms Andersson”. However, most of Ramona’s other assumptions would, I think, be shared by English-speaking girls of her age.

The translation is generally good and appropriate, though at times the vocabulary seems to hover between British and American. For example, the school children “queue” for ice-cream (rather than “stand in line”), but Ramona talks about “airplanes” (rather than “aeroplanes”). Still, I don’t suppose these uncertainties would be disturbing for most readers in the target audience.

One language point that caused me confusion – at the most dramatic point in the story – are the references to flying “chunks of lava”. To the best of my knowledge, lava is molten (liquid) rock, and as such cannot form “chunks”. The rocks spewed out by explosively erupting volcanoes are better described as hot rocks, surely? If a technical term is called for then they are pyroclasts or tephra. (Yes, I looked that up!) I am not sure whether this slip is the responsibility of the translator or the author.

However, these small quibbles aside, Back to Pompeii is a good read and a book I would happily put in the hands of any 12-to-15-year-old. (And it wouldn’t bore the pants off their parents either.)

Kim M. Kimselius is the author of Back to Pompeii. Visit the author’s website to contact her or learn more about her books (English). Or visit her blog (Swedish).

Buy copies of Back to Pompeii from AdLibris or Bokus.

Read reveiws of her other books (various languages) on the GoodReads website.

This review was written as a contribution to the Swedish Egenutgivarnas Recommendation Tree project.

Iain Banks

Author Iain Banks died on Sunday 9th June of a metastasising cancer that originated in his gall bladder. He was 59.

With his death we have lost a witty, intelligent and very able writer of “mainstream” and science fiction as well as a defender of humanism, in all senses of that word. He was also a very nice man.

The author of some 29 books, Banks’ last novel, The Quarry, (forthcoming on 20th June) is largely about a man who is dying of cancer. Typically, Banks wrote:

I was 87,000 words into the book before I discovered the bad news. I had no inkling. So it wasn’t as though this is a response to the disease or anything, the book had been kind of ready to go. And then 10,000 words from the end, as it turned out, I suddenly discovered that I had cancer.

“I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late. This is such a bad idea.”

Quoted from this article on the BBC’s website.

It was Iain Banks’ ambition to become a writer from an early age, but he was 30 before he published his first novel in 1984. The début book was The Wasp Factory, a Gothic coming-of-age novel involving ritual cruelty to animals, puberty and uncertain sexuality, murder, insanity, but also tenderness and love in a number of forms. It had been turned down by no less than 6 publishers before being accepted by Macmillan.

It was published and immediately attracted attention in the way it split literary critics into two camps. While some praised it as the first expression of a fresh new voice, others condemned it as “a work of unparalleled depravity”. (That was the Irish Times.) The original paperback edition reprinted several pages of quotes from the reviews garnered by the first hardback edition. The hyperbole in some, especially in the unfavourable ones, was amusing. It was a clever sales gimmick.

In fact, The Wasp Factory was such a publishing success, Banks was able to do what probably every aspiring writer dreams of: he gave up his day job and took up writing full-time.

Iain Banks
Iain Banks
I’ve been trying to remember when I first came across Iain Banks’ writings. It wasn’t immediately for sure. I was living in Finland in 1984 so the scandal and hype that surrounded The Wasp Factory completely passed me by. I think it may have been the publication of one of his rare short SF stories in Interzone (probably accompanied by an interview), which turned me on to him a few years later. I know I rapidly read every one of his books then in print, starting with Consider Phlebas (his first SF novel, written as by Iain M. Banks). After that, the latest Banks novel was a given purchase whenever I made my annual visit home to England.

The Banks books I liked best, the ones I went back and re-read, were all among his earlier works: The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street, Consider Phlebas, The Bridge, The Player of Games, The Crow Road. (Though I admit I’ve not looked at the first four for some time.) But I guess I’ll be re-reading his entire back catalogue again in the near future. And I’ve placed an advanced order for The Quarry.

In 2008, The Times named him among the “50 Greatest British Writers since 1945”. That accolade is perhaps arguable, but he was certainly among the most read authors of his generation and I’ve no hesitation is echoing Scottish author Ken MacCleod who said Iain Banks’ death has “left a large gap in the Scottish literary scene as well as the wider speaking English world.”

Sublimed, but not forgotten.

The illustration is taken from the Notable Names Database page for Iain Banks where it is uncredited.