Tag Archives: Writing

Bad sentence of the week #1, from Matthew Paris

No, not the medieval monk and chronicler, I mean Matthew Paris the ex-Tory politician, columnist for the Times and former (junior) diplomat.

My step-mother-in-law, a wonderful if slightly unreconstructed ex-colonial and serial petitioner against cruelty to elephants, pointed me at his Parting Shots: Undiplomatic Diplomats – the ambassadors’ letters you were never meant to see (Matthew Parris, Andrew Bryson Penguin Books Ltd, 2010). It’s a book of ‘valedictory’ despatches from UK ambassadors and consuls stretching out over 50 years of de-colonialization. They range from the insightful to the out-and-out offensive. At their worst, one shudders at the thought of these racist, snobbish, chauvinistic people being sent out to represent us. On other occasions, one groans with despair at the extent to which some of the timely and insightful advice these (invariably) men set down was ignored by the governments of the time. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating and alternative ‘oral history’ of modern times and conflicts from a unique set of perspectives.

It isn’t the content of the book that really annoyed me, though. This sentence did.

Discussed briefly in the Introduction is the 2006 decision by the FCO so to curtail the impact within the Office of a valedictory despatch that (diplomats have told us) the whole tradition has effectively been ended.

I regard myself as a broadly literate person. But I’ve tried and tried in vain to parse this sentence. I’ve read it out loud, split it into individual and dependent clauses, translated it into Latin and back again in the hope that it was some strange echo of public school classical grammar (no, not really), but the sense of it continues to elude me. It’s ugly. Where was their editor? They did have an editor, right? I mean, this book was put together by a Times journalist and a radio 4 producer. How could they let this slip through?

Trivial, I know. But it’s Friday.

P.S. Fact of the week – did you know that one of the girls on the cover of Roxy Music’s country life was the sister of Can’s guitar player, Michael Karoli?


Book – “Red Shift” by Alan Garner (1973)

Back when I was in secondary school, I tore through Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. Red Shift, along with its immediate predecessor, The Owl Service, was tougher stuff altogether. His earlier novels were full-blown fantasy of a particularly intense and mythic kind. Back then, they left one feeling that the reality of the world could at any moment be torn away. Nowadays, I’d understand that as a visceral sense of the sacred, the wildness and the connectedness inherent in the world around us and within ourselves, and the power that stories and words have over us. The power that almost anything has to become, and wield power as, a myth.

Red Shift confronts that wildness and connectedness head on, without recourse to fantasy but through the interlocked stories of three couples dominated by the myths of their own times. The first couple, a Roman deserter in early Roman Britain and a tribal ‘corn goddess’ survive through capitulation to the mythic discourse shaping their world. At the time of the civil war, conflicting political myths bring nothing but death to a village in the same part of Cheshire and the couple there are nearly destroyed in the process. In the ‘modern’ Cheshire of the early seventies, two teenagers struggle with discourses of science and class – contributing myths of our own time – and ultimately break up. All of this is held together by a sacred axe passed from age to age and a mysteriously sacred landscape.

As was becoming typical of Garner, all this is communicated through intense, elliptical dialog and starkly visionary evocations of time and place (and the reality is that he’s always thought this way). It’s hard to believe Red Shift was written for a teenage audience and it suggests that YA fiction hasn’t exactly progressed in the last few years in comparison. Mind you, most fiction suffers in comparison with Garner.

Some things about Red Shift sting a lot more today than they did then. The smothering nature of modern-day Tom’s family  is both poignant and horrifying and uncomfortably reminiscent of my own awkward relationships with my father and mother. The incessant jargon and in-jokes and the atrocities committed by the gang of deserting Roman squaddies (survivors of the lost Ninth legion?) are a little too obviously paralleled on American actions in Vietnam but the violence is economically and brutally evoked.

It’s not an easy read but those of you who remembered Garner from your childhoods and felt bemused by Boneland‘s challenging ‘completion’ of the Brisingamen trilogy may find it a bridging work that helps you make a little more sense of his most recent novel (which I loved, by the way).

Writing Wednesday for the last week in February

Oh my poor, neglected blog!

Lazy link stuff, mostly on writing

Writing Scenes: Cooking at the Right Temperature by Lorin Oberweger (a useful nudge as I trudge through scene after scene asking myself “What exactly is it I’m trying to accomplish here? And are there any more words I could use to describe ‘snow’?”)

The Tyranny of the Word Count by Sally Zigmond (Because word counts tyrannize me.)

Utopian for Beginners: An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented (A long piece from the New Yorker via @lillithsaintcrow. The very definition of life imitating Borges)

The Nature of Fun: David Foster Wallace on Why Writers Write (The statutory link culled from Brain Pickings)

*Must Try Harder*

Book update – Skulduggery Pleasant: Kingdom of the Wicked/Artemis Fowl/Black Arrow

I’m reading YA/MG again after a long detour into myth and tarot related materials (all grist for the mill, mind).

I haven’t actually finished the new Skulduggery Pleasant: Kingdom of the Wicked  by Derek Landy yet (well, it was only published this morning) but I’m far enough in to be enjoying it very much indeed. It’s not Tolstoy (thankfully, perhaps) but it’s still funny, fast-moving and with enough new ideas to keep the franchise vibrant. With boyfriend troubles behind her for the moment, the far more interesting relationship between the skeleton detective and Valkyrie takes centre stage again. There’s also more Ghastly (but, sadly, very little China Sorrows so far). It feels a little unedited in places and the dialog isn’t always as funny as Landy might think it is but it’s new Skulduggery and I’m devouring it at top speed.

I’m way behind the rest of the planet on Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl but bought the third one in a charity shop for dudelet  (aged 8) when he ran out of books to read on holiday. He tore through it at light speed and loved it to bits. He’s been through the first and is agitating for the second. I tried to blackmail him into reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe before he was allowed any more but he wasn’t having any.

“I don’t like Narnia! It’s rubbish I like Artemis Fowl! It’s much better! It’s exciting and better written.”

I died a little, of course, but dutifully gave into his exhortations and read Artemis Fowl for myself. And I like it. Yes, there are fairies and deadly collisions between races but this no ordinary middle-grade urban fantasy. Colfer’s fairies are high-tech special forces types or sys-op king-pin centaurs with smart mouths. To all intents and purposes, it’s a well-crafted science fiction thriller. With the Little People. The key ingredient, though, is the very concept of Artemis himself, the twelve-year-old criminal mastermind. I say ‘concept’ because Artemis himself is curiously unengaging in this first outing. I preferred his devoted No. 1, Butler, who has an utterly scene-stealing moment of mayhem with…Well, that would spoil it. But, trust me, Butler is the man you’d want beside you in a dark alley full of deadly assailants. Though definitely not behind you.

Lastly, I finished Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Black Arrow, which might be most kindly described as a ‘medieval romp’. Set in the Wars of the Roses, it follows eighteen-year Dick as he progresses from hard-done-by ward to minor noble, finding romance and a small amount of self-knowledge on the way.

In keeping with the tradition of mayhem in Treasure Island, guts are spilled, heads roll and gizzards (whatever that means) are spitted. The dialog was risible even at the time (‘”Ye are something smallish, indeed,’ began Dick.”) and the Winters Tale style shenanigans at the beginning of the book, where everyone except Dick can see that his travelling companion (and future romantic interest) is a girl, get old fast. Really fast. What was RLS thinking? Take this, for instance

“I tell you,” he went on with a chuckle. ” I swear by the mass  I believe Hugh Ferryman took you for a maid.”

“Nay, never,” cried the other, colouring high.

“A’ did, though, for a wager,” Dick exclaimed. “Small blame to him. Ye look liker maid than man; and – I tell you more – y’are a strange looking rogue for a boy; but for a hussy, Jack, ye would be right fair – ye would. Ye would be well favoured for a wench.”

And so on and on…If you like Stephenson, it’s diverting and entertaining but no Kidnapped.

Next week, I’ll have to try reading some Serious Literature between bashing away at the next draft for my own masterpiece. I doubt Serious Literature will be as much fun, mind.

Foreshadowing that whispers and foreshadowing that goes “Thump!”

Foreshadowing is that most fundamental of narrative tricks, the suggestion or weaving together of future action or outcomes with a character’s ‘present’ situation. The Publetariat provides five snarky but all too accurate examples, including:

There should be a useless looking object that your character gets stuck with. It should be so seemingly irrelevant that it can only be exceptionally relevant. Later, it saves your protagonist’s life

It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because of both the revision of the WIP I’m prevaricating about and the novel I’m currently reading – Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch.

I’ve written before about Sutcliff’s marvellous Eagle of the Ninth where foreshadowing is used in an allusive, poetic way. The hero, a Roman centurion called Marcus, forms a close across-cultural-barriers bond with a local chieftain with whom he is later to come into conflict. Further on in the book (notice how carefully I’m trying to dance around possible spoilers here?) Marcus forms a not dissimilar bond with another  Briton. The parallels in the two relationships and the many contrasts and ironies they suggest are never explicitly pointed out. Instead, Sutcliff simply lets the story unfold and the resonances accumulate beautifully and poetically for themselves. The result is a yet another thematic layer added to an already richly layered story.

With The Silver Branch, things are a little different. I’m only fifty four pages in (and I’m enjoying it) but the occasional foreshadowing doesn’t so much whisper in the ear of the reader as yell “Ahoy! Seriously plot point alert! PAY ATEN-SHUN, READER!” while waving a placard. For example, The Eagle of the Ninth centres around a quest to recover a lost Eagle, a standard belonging to a legion that marched north and was never seen again. Twenty or so pages into The Silver Branch, we learn that an ancestor of the two main characters was rumoured to have had some sort of a quest to do with an Eagle. “I’m not sure,” a character says, “but I’ve always wondered if it could have something to do with the lost Ninth.” Now I suspect that the Eagle is going to turn up in a very satisfying way but the hint lands in the text like a brick.

Of course, this highlights another problem – how to weave information from a first book into a sequel, especially if the lives of the characters are completely discontinuous. Without getting too sidetracked into what is another question entirely, I note that foreshadowing in sequels seems to all too easily tip into information dumping, a little bit of which seems to have happened here.

A separately clunky bit of foreshadowing is a scene, very early on, when the main villain of the piece crushes a moth in a really brutal way. The scene in itself is perfectly well-written but it’s just too much – we’ve already had half-a-dozen hints in the same scene that this individual is a nasty piece of work. Again, the foreshadowing commentator with a megaphone is at the reader’s ear: “This man is a killer and he will crush someone like a moth!”.

Now I don’t want to put you off what is shaping up to be a worthy (if occasionally flawed) sequel to something of a minor masterpiece and I’ll review The Silver Branch in full at a later date. But this foreshadowing stuff. Tricky.  As Lynette Labelle notes, you want the reader to understand that the clues to the killer or thief or trickster or whatever were there all along, if only they’d noticed them. Diana Wynne Jones does this particularly well in Archer’s Goon.

What’s the best and worse bit of foreshadowing anyone’s come across? Currently, I’d personally go with the use of the gun in 1Q84 (I reviewed it here). But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean.