Did The Earth Move For Me? Not Blooming Likely. More A Case Of DIY

All right I confess. I’m a fraud. I call myself a writer, but in reality I move soil.  Year in and year out I move soil. It has become my lot in life – not only on the home front with The Man In My House  Who Keeps Having Ground Moving Notions, but also on my own time up at the allotment. How did this happen? Was this the plan I had for myself?

This time last year we were busy shifting ten tons of gunky green Silurian clay and the junk of builders past, removing a huge and hideous waist-high flower bed outside our back door. We had lived with it for ten years, but finally it had to go. Ground Moving Man, then became Wall and Steps Building Man – using traditional mortar and the old bricks and limestone lying around to place to build a much neater, narrower raised border, and safer steps to the top of the garden. (Our cottage is built into a  bank).  The effort was as momentous, as it was cunning. The Wall and Step Builder had devised a way of dismantling the old steps in tandem with building the new ones so that we always had access to the upper quarters of our small domain, and thence my path to the allotment. Hats off to you, sir!

Here are views of the work as it proceeded.

A wintery before:

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During the synchronised step demolition and rebuilding (pretty good work for a retired plant pathologist):

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After – a bit heavy on the limestone perhaps, but we had it on site, which is always a bonus when you live on a road where deliveries can be tricky:

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Most of the clay spoil and erstwhile builders’ rubble that had been hidden behind the steps and in the bed was barrowed round the front of the house and tipped into a Hippo Bag. This natty item is sent through the post in return for some loot. You fill it with 1.5 tonnes of stuff, and then a truck comes and cranes it away. Ideal for people who live on a busy main road, and have no room for a big skip. We had several of these handy mega bags.

Meanwhile up at the allotment I was dismantling a forty-year old allotmenteers’ spoil heap the size of Everest, and using the substance, which only vaguely resembled compost, to make new raised beds and terraces on my polytunnel plot.  I shifted probably sixty barrow loads, and all with the aim of creating (ultimately) a NO DIG gardening system. I know this may sound mad.

The year before I had started clearing the plot by slicing off the neglected, weed-choked surface and piling the turves into pallet bins in the hopes that one day they would decompose into something usable. This was in no way compatible with the principles of NO DIG, but was my quick and dirty method of checking the buttercup, couch grass, and dandelion infestation. After learning the error of my ways early last spring, I gave it up for covering the remaining uncleared ground in layers of cardboard, and tipping a good six inches of spoil heap soil on the top. He Who Builds Walls and Steps then knocked up a few raised beds. (Those of you who come here often will know all this.)

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This year I find that ants have been busy in the horrid heap of weedy turves, and the ensuing soil is usable, so am now repatriating it to the areas whence I cleared it two years earlier. So good on the ants, but more earth moving required.

Meanwhile, the notions of NO DIG, also require the seasonal application of deep layers of compost to the surface of all beds. The only problem with this is making enough compost. You need tons and tons. However, last autumn I made an effort and amassed material in bins and heaps all over my two plots – wherever there was space in fact. And now these need digging out, or at least turning.

NO DIG, it seems, does not mean the end of wielding forks and spades – not by a long chalk. So there we have it – ‘my days’ career’ as a young Kenyan farm wife once described to me her life of endlessly hauling things about.

And back on the home front  this year we have already dug up the front lawn and replanted the bank beside the road. And we have dug up the back lawn and moved more soil so He Who Builds can now branch out into shed construction, though we did at least have two strong young men come and lay the paved concrete slab from which said edifice will arise. I am told it will have a curved roof.

The arrival of the shed will next dictate the remodelling of the back garden flower beds. All of which makes  me feel as if my  life is founded on shifting ground; the strata beneath my feet in perpetual motion and always needing to be somewhere else, and in some other shape. Perhaps one day all the earth in my vicinity will be in the places where we actually want it – no more moving required. Then perhaps I can give up the fraudulent writer posture and finish off a book or two; return to mental heaving and lugging, re-shaping and visualising, create the content and structure exactly as I want it – and all this without heft of spade or putting on my wellies. Perhaps…

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

So What Is Your Reading Age? Believe Me: It’s All About Numbers

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On Saturday I had a very nice surprise. The usual post delivery person had been and gone at least an hour when along comes a courier with a neat, and quite unexpected package. Inside are my 6 author copies of the new edition of Mau Mau Brother. Yippee! Much jumping up and down in the kitchen. It’s always a thrill to have the freshly printed book clasped to one’s chest.

Some of you may remember that just over a year ago I was turning my brain inside out, cutting an already tightly written teen reader in half to make a new edition. The first version, bottom left, is a 6000-word, 64-page novelised short story aimed at struggling young adult readers with a reading age of 9-10 years. It is one of Ransom Publishing’s  Shades series of fast-paced, high interest teen fiction.

The new Sharp Shades 2.0 edition has the same number of pages, 3,000 words, larger font and the addition of several moody full-page, grey-scale  images. Its target audience are less able teen readers.

When it comes to reading age markers, it is worth pointing out that the average UK reading age (that includes everyone, adults and all)  is 9 years. The reading age for our best newspapers like The Guardian is 14 years, and the reading age for tabloids like The Sun is 8 years. But of course the ability to read, and the application of that ability, and using it to acquire information, learn or to nourish the mind, are not necessarily the same thing.

It’s quite simple too. Teens can struggle with the notion of actually picking up a book; are daunted by the size and word density of a 40,000 word novel. It can be tied in to a lack of self worth; some deep belief that if they attempt so big a book they will fail; that it will be yet another manifestation of their feeling of uselessness and inferiority; that so much dense text with no pictures is of itself BORING.

There are, after all, so many other more instantly engaging, loud and in-your-face-ears-eyes experiences to be had at the lightest press of a button, and every minute of the day. You can while away every spare moment on your smart phone with whatever teen version of TwitFace is currently cool. It’s like a continuous intravenous feeding – films, music, chat endlessly streaming into us. I think it was Margaret Atwood who, speaking of the addictive quality of the internet in the Observer, said that the problem is, every time you log on you expect WWW to deliver you an Easter Egg.

That’s it exactly. It’s how I feel. It must be how Margaret Atwood feels too!

All of which is to repeat that there is for many – adults and children alike – a big resistance to picking up a book in the first place, let alone losing themselves in it. Reading requires effort and application and being still. Which brings me back to my book. The aim of the Shades series is to engage teens with the process of reading; to help build a reading habit; to show that reading a story can deliver more than a tray load of Easter Eggs, something more meaningful that helps you grow within and without; to discover where your place is in the world. The stories, then, must be arresting, but their conveyance swift and affecting. Remember: we are up against competing intravenous streaming here.

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As you can see, I’ve taken some editing liberties with the covers in the intro photo. This is what the new Sharp Shades edition actually looks like.

The story is told in the first person, present tense by fifteen year old Thuo. And since the cover blurb already sets scene, I won’t say more. But to demonstrate something of the editing process involved in reducing one accessible text to an even more accessible text, here are excerpts from the two versions of Chapter 2. I think it’s anyway interesting to see what can be excised from a piece of prose and and have what’s left still carry the narrative. Of course in the process the whole tone may change. I actually found myself more engaged with the sparer version. But see what you think: the hard  pruned Sharp Shades first:

 

Bombers

The day we lose our home Mugo and I are taking our goats to graze. My little brother runs ahead, slapping the dewdrops from the grass. I stew on my anger.

Before the war, I was a schoolboy. I wore a smart white shirt and khaki shorts. I was studying hard to be someone. Then the British closed my school, and now I am a goat herder.

It’s another reason to hate Kungu.

I’m so busy fuming I don’t hear the Lincoln bombers. They come like giant birds.

Boom-boom-ker-boom.

Bombs fall. Trees fly apart. Hills sprout volcanoes. They are bombing God’s Mountain, bombing Mau Mau.

When the planes drone away and the smoke clears, Mugo grabs my arm.

‘Kungu?’ he chokes. ‘They’ve killed him.’

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And now the here’s the original Shades version:

 

Bombers

On the day we lose our home, my little brother Mugo and I are taking our goats to pasture.

It is January, high summer. All around doves coo and cornstalks rustle, and I think: how can there be war on so fine a day?

The sun is just rising and Mugo runs ahead, slapping dew from the grasses, so the drops fly like jewels through the sky. I remember doing that too when I was younger.

But I was not minding goats. I was hurrying to school, wearing the white shirt bought four sizes too big from the Indian trader so it will last for years. And I am wearing khaki shorts instead of my kidskin wrap. It is my first day at the Kikuyu Independent School.

Father has taken me away from the Scottish Mission, saying the teachers there teach Africans to be nothing better than clerks and house servants. He says I will have a better future at KIS.

I don’t. With the uprising, the British close my school. I have been minding goats ever since. It is another reason to hate Kungu.

Mugo goes on swishing grasses, but I am so busy fuming I do not hear the planes. Then the world shakes to bits.

Boom-boom-ker-boom.

Mugo jumps like a spooked deer. And we run. At the top of the ridge we see the Lincoln bombers like giant birds above the forest.

Down come the bombs. One, two…five, more…till I want to vomit. The hills sprout volcanoes. Trees fly apart. Our goats shriek.

We stand and stare as if turned to stone. The bombers do not target our farms, only the forests outside the Reserve.

When  planes drone away the smoke clears, we stare at God’s Mountain. The jagged snow peaks, the dark forest slopes, are still there. It is hard to believe.

‘Kungu?’ Mugo’s eyes dart round in case there’s anyone to hear. ‘They have killed him?’

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As you can see, nearly two thirds of the descriptive context has gone from the shortened version. It is easy to be sorry to lose these kinds of detail, but ruthless cutting of such passages was better than losing the story.

All fascinating stuff. I quite like seeing how many versions of a work I can come up with. And I really enjoy the challenge of a limited word count. After all, it’s not so much about how much you can hang on to, as how little you actually need to tell a well rounded and affecting story.

But there is a problem here for me as creator of fiction. If you produce work that is labelled for a specific purpose, then it is unlikely to be read by anyone else, i.e. those who consider themselves outside the target audience.  As a writer, I write for anyone who will read me, and tend to balk at categorisation of any kind. I especially dislike the category ‘educational writing’.

All the same, if the stories I write, and the different ways I can write them, will encourage unkeen readers to read and develop a love of reading, then I’m wholeheartedly for it. Not to read well is to be disenfranchised. Your options are shut down. You leave oneself vulnerable to those who would misrepresent, manouevre and manipulate the information-world we inhabit. Good reading promotes understanding, powers of discretion, a sense of autonomy; it strengthens mind and imagination, those attributes that make us keenly human; the very attributes we will increasingly need if we are to make something worthwhile of our lives on this planet.

In England we especially need to look to our laurels. In fact those laurels are down round our ankles like pants that have lost their elastic. We apparently have the lowest teen literacy rates, and second lowest numeracy rates of the world’s 23 most developed countries. Korea, Japan, Netherlands are respectively the first, second and third most literate and numerate nations. See The Spectator article HERE for more on this shaming state of affairs.)

In the meantime, more power to small publishing houses like Ransom who specialise in making books for struggling readers of all ages. Their extensive catalogue provides all the tools to tackle literacy. This particular writer is anyway proud to be a Ransom author: when it comes to better reading only the best writing will do.

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Ransom blog on WordPress HERE

Numbers  – go here for the Daily Post Weekly Challenge
#RansomBooks  #literacy #NickyMorganSecretaryOfStateForEducation #NationalLiteracyTrust #Proud2BeARansomAuthor #BestWritingForBetterReading

A Pattern For Writers? (Safety note: No spiders included)

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The web, then, or the pattern: a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style, that is for the foundation of the art of literature.

So wrote Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) in The Art of WritingYou can download the full text in various formats at this link.

Anyway I’ve taken the liberty of adding a visual aid to go with the quote so we writers can be absolutely clear about what we are supposed to be aiming for.

Actually for me this image says more about the snaggled webs that are my thought processes – all sorts of knotty, misshapen bits, unwanted intrusions, and many dropped stitches. Oh yes, and also fog-bound. And if you look at the photo with X-ray eyes you will just make out a more finely woven web overlapping the larger web – their centres more or less aligned in the upper third of the image.  I’m good at doing that too – getting two separate works mixed up with each other so they are impossible to pull apart. So today, you can tell, the writing has not been going well – all hitched up and back-to-front, and too many projects stitched in one.

But as I said – it’s something to aim for – this sensuous, logical web. And the ‘do-over’ is ever an option. Time to unravel the messy bits then, re-string the loom and get weaving. And to all fellow writers out there – may your threads remain untangled and the elegant and pregnant texture be with you.

P.S. I always find myself fascinated by the fact that Robert Louis Stevenson was a rebel writer, broken away (in the face of domineering paternal ambition) from a dynasty of obsessive compulsive, but oh so intrepid, and brilliant lighthouse builders. I feel this may tell us something important about his work.

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This web is also for Jude at The Earth Laughs In Flowers because she says she likes webs. She is looking for macro and close-up garden photos this month.

The Writer’s Season: A Pursuit Of Active Dormancy

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NOTE TO SELF:

There is a time when it is all right for writers not to write. I’ll say this again so I’ll remember. There is a time when it is all right for writers not to write. It is time of preparation, and very much like putting over-cropped ground down to grass so the soil can regenerate. A time of fallowness then, but not of time wasting.

Before the real work can begin, there must be input, a drawing down of resources (like a tree in winter) – reading, researching and general planning.  And when I say ‘not writing’ I don’t mean give up on the writing practice – the brainstorming-stream-of-consciousness splurge, the morning pages, verbal doodling, keeping diaries. In fact do more. These are the equivalent of a musician practicing scales, or a dancer taking the exercise classes before working on a performance. This kind of practice strengthens fluency and, if you’re lucky, opens pathways to your subconscious thinking. It is all part of making ready for creating new work. None of this is for public consumption.

Yet doing sufficient groundwork is probably what most of us balk at. We have been fed with the notion that the best creation only comes in a white-hot blast of inspirational outpouring. We wait for it to happen. And it may never happen. More likely as not, such an approach will become a self-fulfilling blockage prophecy.

Then we may we tell ourselves the lie that if we are not busy producing words for the work in progress, then we cannot call ourselves writers. This may prompt us to start a work too soon simply to convince ourselves that we are being productive. Too often this will also end in confusion, blockage and despondency.

Only when we know our subject in our hidden depths, down in our roots and under the bark, can we best deploy our conveyances (our words) to bring it to the outer world. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in every last detail. Or not exactly. I have in mind Michael Morpurgo’s way. This well known English children’s writer is also a farmer. When he is thinking about a new book, he tells himself the story over and over until he dreams about it. Then he goes out in the early morning among his sheep and tells them the story. Only when he feels it is going down well with the ovine audience does he begin the act of serious writing. In this way he has proposed, explored, processed and internalized a narrative before he has written a word.

What emerges is more likely to be a  work that has intrinsic authenticity and consistency, as opposed to a narrative that has been imposed by the writer from outside, and often feels weak and poorly rooted.

So what do we need? Preparation, preparation, preparation.

But not too much either. I’m suddenly thinking of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, he who ended up so obsessed with his researches that he left no time to write the book.  So a balance in all things. The knack, of course, is to recognize tipping point.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Seasons

 

On reflection: can there be too much of it?

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Writers are past masters of diversionary tactics. This particular writer spends a considerable amount of avoiding the work in progress. She is not sure why. But staring out of the window is definitely a popular pastime. On the other hand, who wouldn’t want to stare at a sky like this, the sun going down behind Wenlock Edge.

Then I discovered something really neat as I was trying to snap it. My office has a cabin bed in the corner under the roof light. So I clambered on the bed, and opened the window to the horizontal to give myself a makeshift ‘tripod’. I then set the Lumix to sunset mode and rested it on the back of the window. And this is what happened.

Who’d’ve thought avoiding writing could be this much fun. But there’s a lesson here too. Sometimes we overthink the pieces we are working on. Sometimes we need to loosen up and play. And ask questions. Definitely ask questions. E.g. What would happen if I let my characters think for themselves, and stopped trying to control them? What if I let them go play? What might they not come with? Something magical, diverting, extraordinary? Do I have the nerve to let them go?

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

This Writer’s Path In Black & White? Or Search For The Lost Portal?

 

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This image could be symbolic. You see the real problem is my mind keeps leaping ahead. Already it knows what is waiting for it beyond that distant obelisk. There is the final scene: redemption for a lost, old soul; rain falling in a rainless land. There is even the final sentence. The last full stop. I can see them all. But then, curiously perhaps, the mind’s-eye place that I rush towards is nothing like the place in the photograph – this rain-logged Cornish avenue of cropped limes. How could it be? My body may live in England now, but my mind still wanders in Africa where it endlessly struggles to create.

The yarn (aka the novel) that’s been churning in my head for countless months (years maybe) has its source in the thorny, arid plains of East Africa. And if ever it rains there, it smells nothing like the rain in temperate lands. In Africa you know your life depends on it – the fickle falling of rain. In England you simply expect it while grumbling at forever getting wet. This is one manifestation of the great divide between the famished and the over-fed.

And yet…

And yet there is congruence here.

When I discover the avenue at Christmas I am instantly fascinated. It’s like coming upon a lost garden, or some ancient megalith. I want to know where the path leads: simply to the obelisk, or is there something more beyond? The avenue itself, with its period formality, anyway evokes expectation of some pleasing and diverting progress along it.

But it isn’t the time for promenading. The weather is so gloomy and wet the avenue is almost too dark to photograph, let alone walk along. But still I return several times more, and pick my way back and forth among the trees, noting the clumps of daffodils and crocus, sprouting densely among the roots. I even patrol the grassy bank beside it, trying to grasp the avenue’s measure and meaning. Is it simply some vanity-planting by long-ago denizens of the small manor house that is now converted into holiday flats? And even though I can see it clearly issues from the carriage circle outside the house, does it actually go anywhere at all?

I can ask similar questions of my current work. Is it a piece of vanity writing, or something of substance? A story that is going somewhere special, or not? I am becoming aware, too, that knowing the ending (being in love with it almost) could be an (overwhelming) handicap: why bother to create what comes before it? Isn’t it all too hard? But then, on its own, that final scene has no meaning, no matter how much it may excite and lure my imagination away from the job in hand; snatching concentration from the down-and-dirty toil of how to get there.

So yes, yes, and yes. Of course it is the journey that counts; the grand excursion that must be planned and undertaken. Undergone. Borne. The delineation and experience of what happens on the way are key; in that yawning space between departure and arrival great transformations must take place. This, after all, is the point of fiction. Verbal alchemy.

When I finally slither and slide to the obelisk, I find the avenue strangely truncated. Behind the monument whose commemorative purpose is not obvious, I find a small wrought iron seat for two and, a step beyond and directly facing it at right-angles, a hedge. This is puzzling. How can the avenue end here? Surely it was once part of the main drive to the house. From its earliest days in 1690, and through the Victorian period, Duloe Manor was the rectory. And so, whether by carriage or cart, on horseback or on foot, parishioners must have approached its front door somehow.

A cursory scanning of the landscape suggests that any onward stretch of drive must have turned sharply at the obelisk and descended downhill to the lane. Now it is lost in an open meadow tailored for holiday guests who wish to exercise their dogs or simply amble. I also ponder why the seat looks onto a hedge. Then I see that, beneath the recent unseasonal growth spurts, the hedge had been shaped to allow a vista as if it were a balcony. As I stand beneath dripping lime trees, I conjure a clear day when rainclouds aren’t snagged on the fence tops. The panorama of Cornish countryside will be magnificent, I think; perhaps a distant glint of sea?

Looking at the photo now, I see only my task ahead – the making and moulding of the many stages through which a piece of work must pass. I have made a good start. Written many thousands of words. I know where I’m heading. Clearly then it is time to commit myself to the hardest part – the middle.

But here’s the rub – the discomforting, unnerving questions that this little excursion has sparked. Ones that must be answered before I take another step.
1: How seriously do I take my writer-self? Seriously enough to bring off this task?
2: Does the work itself have energy enough to make, or even warrant the journey?
3: Do I have energy enough?
4: And how will I feel if I never give myself the chance to write that final scene?

On reflection, an answer to this last might serve for the other three. It depends on the answer.

Later – today in fact – I discover that in times past one of the house guests at Duloe Manor was Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. It is said he was working on Alice in Wonderland at the time. Suddenly this knowledge brings new possibility. Never mind the navel-gazing and writer-angst. Of course it is exhausting inhabiting two realities, and never being quite in either – body in one place, mind half a world away. Surely, then, what I need is Alice’s rabbit hole – to submerge, to blooming well get down there and on with it. In fact, look out there. I think I see him. Isn’t that the White Rabbit dodging through the lime trees? Quick, quick, I mustn’t lose sight of him.

Wait for me-eeeee, White Rabbit!

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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New Edition on the way ~ Mau Mau Brother

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It’s always a thrill, nerve-wracking too, when the book proofs arrive. But then with this new Sharp Shades edition of Mau Mau Brother  there was no need for qualms. Ransom’s Art Director, Stephen Rickard, has done my story proud, both in the final edit, and the inclusion of some moody grey-scale images.

The story that was 6,000 words in the original Shades series has been chopped in half, but spread  over the same 64-page format to become a Sharp Shades edition. And it works. And I’ll repeat that for the benefit of any writers who are reading this, and who are a touch sensitive about heavy editing: three thousand words from my tightly written 6,000-word story (you can see an extract  of the original HERE) have been expunged, and the end result is great.

I’d better explain.

When I am not growing cauliflowers, making leaf mould and generally hanging about on WordPress, one of the very important things I do is write short fiction for teens who are striving to build a reading habit.

Back in the spring, Ransom, who publish these works, suggested that my latest title, Mau Mau Brother,  would make a good Sharp Shades edition if I was prepared to cut it by half. As I wrote in a post back in April HERE, I was doubtful that I could, but I said I would try. In the event, I found myself stuck at around 3,400 words and Ransom asked me to hand it back for some more pruning; they would let me see the finished text for my approval, they said.

A few days ago they did just that, and I am really pleased with the end result. They are great people to work with.

Not only that, Ransom Publishing are specialists in the production of accessible fiction and nonfiction for struggling readers of all ages. Their strap-line is ‘UNLOCKING LITERACY’. For those of us who can read and write fluently, it is hard to imagine not having these skills.  But if you can’t read well, you are effectively disenfranchised as a functioning member of the community. Locked out in every sense.

The Shades series includes some 60 titles written by many well known and seasoned children’s writers. The titles are aimed at young adults with an interest level of  12 years +, but a reading ability of 9-10 years. Many young people are also daunted by the size of a book, while still wanting ‘the excitement of a great story told with pace and style. ‘ At 64 pages, the books are compact, easy to handle. The cover images are striking, edgy, and with all the style of quality mainstream fiction. In other words, they may be small, but they don’t look  ‘less’.

Inside, the story is presented novel-style, in chapters, but with plenty of white space on the page.  To cater for the less able reader, the Sharp Shades editions have half the number of words of a Shades title, far fewer words per page, are set in a larger font and have added illustrations.

Personally, I think the books in both Shades series are appealing to any reader of any ability. They make for handy quick-reads that fit in most pockets. And just because they are aimed at people who struggle with their reading, doesn’t mean the stories are either simple or simplistic. They embrace themes that matter to all of us: love, hate, fear, injustice, belonging, relationships, families, overcoming threats and hardship. So I’m not going to say any more about Mau Mau Brother. The blurb on the back of the book pretty much covers it. Thank you, Steve Rickard.

 

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Related:

Killing Words ~ a case of verbal decomposing?

Losing Kui – an extract

 

@ransombooks  #RansomPublishing

@Literacy_Trust  #NationalLiteracyTrust

Climate change before my eyes? Sweet Peas on 28 October

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Up at the allotment my teepee of sweet peas has been flowering since June. Twice I have thought they were over, and thought of pulling them up. But here they are (photographed yesterday) still budding and blooming, and it’s nearly November. The sky is pretty impressive too.

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In fact there’s a lot going on on my plot. My cabbages and Brussels sprouts have grown another six inches in the last few days, and are fighting their way out of their protective enviromesh. The leeks are fat and juicy, and the courgettes are still (just) producing a few fruits. The new strawberry bed is finished, the asparagus mulched, and the over-wintering onions and field beans are in, and sprouting. And, most exciting – to me at least – I have created two huge new compost heaps. Next up, is leaf collection to make leaf mould. It’s a slow process, but worth doing for seed compost. This week on BBC Gardeners World, Monty Don, told me to gather every single leaf because they are so precious. So I shall.

Because if ever I heard a mega-tactic to avoid writing, then this is it. Sorry, can’t write the novel. Must pick up leaves – one at a time.

Actually, I have been writing, though not the novel. Two short stories completed in the last few weeks. In fact today it’s far too wet to go out leaf collecting. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a leaf from the sweet peas’ book, and go and grow the masterwork.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

#Cee’sFlowerOfTheDay

Help, Mr. King! My polytunnel needs editing

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I have written elsewhere how gardening and writing become mixed up in my life. But just see what happens when you don’t rein in your gardening writing, when you let your setting run riot. Words, like plants, need a certain space to perform well; to be the stars of the show; to say their piece effectively.

I never intend to over-create. In fact my internal critic warns against it, whether gardening or writing. The polytunnel mayhem is of course easily explained: I simply had to  plant out every last tomato seedling. How could I not, when I had nurtured each one through the cold spring months that seemed never ending?

All I can say if you write like this, and then don’t engage in some ruthless excision tactics, you will not be able to find the tomatoes for the overgrowth.

On the fiction writing front, Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir) would call this kind of chaos “a thicket of description”. It’s what happens when writers become too attached to the minutely researched details of their setting, and then feel they can’t sacrifice a single beloved element.

It can also happen when you start a story in the wrong place, and then flounder about trying to write yourself to the right place. It’s like planting all your tall-growing tomato plants at the front of the bed, and then wondering why you, or anyone else can’t see what’s going on behind with short varieties. This, then, is also a setting problem: you have not planned the planting scheme and stuck to it (more or less).

All of which is to say, there comes a point when you have to take out a whole batch of words and shoot them – this so the survivors have room to expand and thrive (the excess tomato plants you could of course give to someone else.)

Stephen King explains the situation further (pp 138-9). He gives an example of using a real location as his setting for a piece of narrative, in this case the Palm Too restaurant in New York. It is somewhere he knows. As he starts to visualize the place, he summons the first four things that strike him. These, he says, are likely to be ‘the truest and the best’ details. He also says he can  make up a few other things too, but there is really no need for more:

“This isn’t the Taj Mahal we’re visiting…and I don’t want to sell you the place…it’s not about setting, anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.”

Put another way, you could say that fiction writing is never about the writer. To create, you need to GET OUT OF THE WAY. And the better you succeed in this, the better the story. This is not to say that the writer’s experiences and cast of mind do not inform/infuse the narrative, but think conduit and transit time, rather than compendium drag.

Words are fiction’s conveyance to transport readers out of themselves and into the lives of others in new/penetrating/exciting /inspiring ways. The words need lift, energy, vivacity. Anything that snags transition must be cut.

This is probably the hardest lesson for the starting-out writer to believe, let alone put into practice. But it is a truism: less is almost invariably more. Not believing this is one of the reasons we have slush-piles, and why publishers now mostly shut their doors to unsolicited submissions. It’s the reason why I have too many tomato plants in my polytunnel, when I could have made the best of, say, half a dozen of the strongest plants.

But then as Stephen King advocates, practice (lots of practice) will yield improvement. So I vow to improve in my prose and in my planting. For now I leave you with Mr. King’s brief words on the means to create viable settings:

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh imagery and simple vocabulary.”

100_6937 N.B.: use only the brightest and the best tomatoes, and not too many.

Happy writing!

 

Related: Errant muse? But there’s still life at the allotment

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy

– a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales

set somewhere in East Africa

Inspiration: striving to succeed

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It was in Africa that I became a professional writer. And it was writing for children like Zaina that spurred me to begin. It seemed to me, that unlike many British young people, Kenyan kids were desperate to go to school and, once there, strove to do their utmost to make something of their lives. I was cross, too, at the then lack of contemporary local fiction that showed young Kenyans as heroes, and in the kinds of situations they could identify with. Then I found that many of the stories I wrote for African children also worked for a European readership, or at least for those who were keen to find out what life was really like in the parts of African that I visited and lived in. And now, all these years later, and living back in England, these are still the things that drive me to write.

 

 

 

Inspiration