I’m Doing NaNoWriMo 2012!

This year I will actually be attempting NaNoWriMo 2012. For those of you who don’t know what this means, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is where people around the world commit to writing a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve been wanting to have a go at this for a few years now but didn’t have the confidence. This year however, I’ve decided to give it a go!

I’ll admit I was a bit late to start with this, I only remembered it started on November 1st last night at around 10pm so at the moment I’ve only written 600 words. Still it’s a start! I will hopefully be making up for this today, cramming in a couple of thousand words. The aim is to write about 1700 words a day.

The big question was what to write about? Well, I have tentatively put that I will be writing a sci fi novel “probably involving some form of time travel” on my NaNoWriMo profile, but I’m not sure how this will play out. I had a great idea about a story involving time travel but have already confused myself over paradoxes and things so I’m tempted to abandon the time travel plot in favour of something more straight forward. Still, they say you should just write whatever comes to mind first, and worry about editing in December. So that’s what I’m going to do.

I haven’t decided yet if I will be writing one novel or several short stories, or even just some articles. My aim is simply to write lots all through November, as practice makes perfect and ultimately I want to write for a living (this is the dream). I think it’s excellent practice for getting into the mindset of writing lots every day.

Here’s a snippet of what I’ve done so far:

“I have seen the future, and it makes a mockery of Orwell and Huxley. They didn’t realise how much power chaos has.”

Cringe! I must admit that when I started last night I was thinking of an extremely overdramatic plot involving the end of the world so it’s a bit doom and gloom at this stage. Hoping to lighten things up a bit today with some ace characters so we’ll see where the writing takes me!

Wish me luck! I’m going to need it to make it to the end of November! I really don’t want this to turn out to be ANOTHER thing I start and don’t finish!


An Irrational Rant about Cloud Atlas and the Use of Accents and Dialects in Books

I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and whilst I thought it was an excellently written book, and I generally enjoyed it, I found the middle section a bit of a drag. After some consideration I’ve realised why. I simply don’t like it when authors write in an accent or dialect.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more this realisation rang true, and I began to remember other examples. I have never really loved Wuthering Heights (gasp!). This is primarily because it was sold to me as a tragic, timeless romance and I discovered it to be a book full of pathetic, bitter and petty characters that don’t have a single redeeming quality between them. However, my dislike of the book was deepened by Joseph, the disagreeable servant who speaks in an unintelligible Yorkshire dialect throughout the whole novel. Also he’s miserable and irritating, and generally (in my opinion) superfluous to the plot, although I’m sure I once said how his character is an example of the hardened labouring classes of nineteenth-century rural Yorkshire or some such claptrap when I studied the book at school. My point is, any book that contains the below speech is just asking to be thrown at a wall in exasperation.

            We’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ’em’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlk. That’s maisterm yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’grand ‘sizes.

Back to Cloud Atlas. It isn’t half as bad as Wuthering Heights, but it still got to me a bit. The middle section is set an indeterminable amount of years in the future after the collapse of civilisation. The story is narrated by a man living on an island inhabited by several tribes who live without electricity, technology or any of the “Smart” of the “Old’uns”. It starts:

Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me

Upon reading this first sentence my heart sank. Yes, I know it’s not that different to “normal” writing, and it’s definitely easier to understand than Joseph but I couldn’t bear the thought of a whole chunk of this novel being written like this. In my experience writing in an accent makes it awkward for the reader, constantly trying to sound out the words in their head, and it usually ends up ruining the flow of the prose.

It’s not that I don’t see where David Mitchell is coming from; it makes perfect sense to write the middle section like this as it is an oral account, not a written one, and therefore it wouldn’t make sense to be overly formal. I totally understand why he felt the need for a dialect. I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine that countless years in the future after the collapse of civilisation language won’t be the same as it is now. Hell, I know that language is evolving every day and if my Victorian/Edwardian/until 10 years ago ancestors read this they would be horrified and perplexed by my informal, scatterbrained writing. I think it’s actually extremely clever of Mitchell to have written the book like this, with each section written believably in the language of its setting. The middle section is meant to be a narrated story, not a written journal or tale like the other sections, and as such it fits in with the rest of the book nicely. And the rest of the sections are also cleverly written. The proper and precise language of Adam Ewing’s Journal  in the nineteenth century seems entirely credible, as are the funny, flowery and verbose letters from the 1930s.

However, it’s not the language I have a problem with, it’s phonetic writing. Even though writing in an accent like this is the best way for Mitchell to convey that a) it’s an oral account and b) language has changed in this future setting, I still don’t like it. Phonetic writing slows the reader down because you have to translate the words in your head (internally you go, “oh I see, by “an'” he means “and”). I don’t really want to have to translate what I’m reading. In fact, if I wanted to do that, I’d have bought a book in Italian and spent a month trying to decipher it. What I really wanted was a novel written in my own language that I could lose myself in. It’s made even worse by the fact that English is the least phonetic language in the world (it feels like it anyway). We’re just not used to reading like this! We carefully learn how to spell and say every word properly when we’re really young and then we stick to it. Stubbornly.

I’m only picking on Cloud Atlas because it is fresh in my mind. Please understand that I thought that it was a great book, and the language thing was really only a minor irritation. I’m just using it as an example of a bigger issue I have had for years. I also had similar troubles with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and even though it was a good book, I struggled through it because of the phonetically written speech. I think that generally, I have a pretty good idea of what most accents sound like in English, and if an author was to write that a character spoke in a Scottish/Irish/German/Whatever accent I would be able to hear it in my mind all on my own, without any help from the author. Sometimes it feels like writers just like showing off.

So there you have it. I reeeeaally don’t like accents and dialects in writing. In my opinion they’re unnecessary and awkward to read. Rant over.

N.B. I allow only one exception: I don’t really mind Hagrid’s slight accent in the Harry Potter books as it’s very easy to understand, doesn’t interrupt the flow of the writing and accounts for such a small part of the series. But as a Potter geek I’m probably a bit biased.

Quick Review: The End Specialist by Drew Magary

Ok! I’ll admit I have been totally rubbish at blogging recently, and have even been avoiding the blog for the last couple of weeks! I’m not sure why, I think it’s because the longer I left it the more daunting it got… if that makes sense? Anyway, I decided to just bite the bullet and blog about a book I read aaaaggges ago, but was one of the most fascinating takes on the future I’ve read. I know I said I was leaning against book reviews but I’ve had a change of heart and besides, this summer I read A LOT and have lots to tell you about!

You may not know this, but I’m a HUGE fan of end of the world/post apocalyptic books. The more desperate the situation the characters are in, the better! I’m not sure why I like them so much, it could be because they make me feel a lot better about my life in a it-could-be-so-much-worse kind of way, or it could just be that they’re exciting books that enable us to visualise that which we hopefully won’t see in our lifetime (although apparently the world is in fact going to end in December this year so… eek).

You might not initially think that The End Specialist was this type of book, based on the central theme. It’s what I call a “what-if” book, a sort of fictionalised mental exercise in which you imagine how society would change if something was radically altered. In this case it’s “what if we invented a cure for ageing?” and explores how this cure would affect the whole world. But if you thought there was going to be a happy everyone-was-immortal-and-lived-forever-in-peace ending, you’d be corrected as soon as you saw the title of the prologue, which is: “A Note About The Text From The Department of Containment, United North American Territories”. An ominous beginning if ever there was one.

The End Specialist follows John and what happens to him after he gets the “cure”. Written as if a blog, the book is different from others which explore the world after a major catastrophe (The Road, The Hunger Games, etc.) as it explores the disaster while it is happening. You get a real sense of being stuck in the middle of events which will change the world as we know it forever. It’s also interesting because it explores not only the social impacts of the “cure” (divorce rates soaring, marriage rates plummeting, people having fixed-term marriages), but the economic (population rates rising, resources running out, starvation and disease) and the political (Russia makes all its soldiers in the army get the cure and begins a new aggressive foreign policy). The book jumps forward a few decades several times throughout the book, and in this way Magary is able to explore the really long term affects of such a “cure”. Eventually, people begin wishing they could die, and there becomes a market for people who are willing to help them. These people are called “End Specialists” and our protagonist, John becomes one.

Overall I found this an interesting, if a little depressing, read. The sheer amount of thought put into the central concept of the book and its consequences is staggering, and very impressive. Magary has considered every possible outcome of the cure and has included it into his not-overly-long novel. However, John isn’t a hugely sympathetic character and the real fall back with having a blog-style book is that it becomes faintly ridiculous during moments of life-shattering action that he would be blogging all the way through it (I don’t want to spoil the end so I won’t go into detail). Having said that I’d definitely recommend this to any fellow fan of the genre.

I’m Back! With a Review of Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Hi folks! Sorry it’s been a while (well a very long time), but I’ve been on holiday and after that, dealing with post-holiday blues, and after that, sunbathing a lot in the garden. And now there’s all the excitement of the Olympics! But I’m going to try really hard to catch up on the blogging at the same time as watching the sport (it’s already proving tricky, I meant to blog this on Sunday but I have been too preoccupied with the gymnastics/swimming/diving/equestrian).

The last few weeks have been good for me to catch up on lots of reading (and I’ve read A LOT) and also for thinking up exciting new ideas for the blog! They’re not quite ready yet though, so I thought I’d keep you going by reviewing my summer reads.

Quick note: This post was originally intended to be a summary of all my summer reading so far, but I wrote 700 words about these books without even thinking about it! And I am fully aware that I said a while back I was going to focus less on book reviews, oops! Oh well… here you go:

Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

These books blew me away. In fact, as soon as I finished them I nagged my friend Olivia into reading them immediately. She loved them so much she nagged her sister into reading them immediately… and I expect it will carry on like this until the whole world has devoured them (a feat nearly accomplished, if the internet hype is anything to go by). The amazing thing is, I picked up Divergent just after Ready Player One, and I never thought I would find a book as good as that one for a long time!

The books are set in a city post-mysterious war where society has split into five factions in order to maintain peace. The factions are split according to what people believe is to blame for conflict in society. The Erudite faction blame ignorance, and therefore they prize knowledge above all else. Amity blame aggression so they value kindness and peace. Abnegation blame selfishness, so they value selflessness. Candor blame dishonesty so they value the truth and finally Dauntless blame cowardice and therefore they value bravery and courage. Those who do not belong in any of these are the Factionless, and are doomed to a miserable existence on the outskirts of society. Each faction performs a vital role in society, for example Amity run the farms which provide all food for the city.

Tris is born into Abnegation but when she turns sixteen and has to choose a faction, she leaves her family to join Dauntless. However, she soon realises that becoming one of the Dauntless is a tough process, and only a few of the initiates who chose it will make it into the faction. Tris has to learn how to fight and also confront her greatest fears in order to become part of Dauntless. Much of the first book is about Tris being a Dauntless initiate, about the challenges she faces, her new Dauntless friends and her mysterious trainer Four. Insurgent follows straight on from the first book, and follows Tris, Four and co. in a nail-biting sequel which had me in tears at parts. I don’t want to say much more though, as I will totally ruin everything! And I reeeeaaaally don’t want to spoil it for anyone, as part of the joy of these books was not knowing what was going to happen.

I really liked the concept of these books, and I have spent many an hour thinking about firstly, which faction I would choose (I think Erudite, but secretly I’d like to be Dauntless) and secondly, what my greatest fears are (spiders, sadly, would definitely make an appearance). Initially I thought the idea of such rigid factions was a little odd, but as I read more I began to think about how they made sense. For me, good science fiction is all about making impossible futures and worlds believable and tangible and I think Roth has done this excellently. I was totally immersed in Tris’s story and felt the familiar stab of sadness when I’d finished the books.

The reason I loved these books so much is because not only were they exciting and totally gripping, but the relationships in them are truly wonderfully crafted. Veronica Roth has achieved what Suzanne Collins could not; she has created a post-apocalyptic, plot-driven novel which also has believable characters who interact with each other in a realistic way. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved The Hunger Games, but I thought it was lacking something in the character development department. I wasn’t always clear about why Katniss acted the way she did and it frustrated me. With Divergent and Insurgent, however, I was totally convinced and moved by Tris and her relationships with Four, her Dauntless friends and her parents. The books are also touching without being overly soppy or sentimental. I would recommend them to all who liked The Hunger Games, and anyone else!

What will the third and final book be called?

Here’s the downside: Divergent and Insurgent are part of a trilogy, and the last book isn’t set to be out until late next year! However, let me assure you that the second book ends quite satisfactorily, so I wouldn’t bother putting off reading these until the last book comes out. Read them now! A fun game you can play until next year is “guess the name of the third book”. My friend Olivia’s bets are on “Emergent”, whereas I am going for either “Convergent”or “Detergent”.

Also, predictably, the rights for Divergent have been bought by Summit, so I expect this will blow up Hunger Games-style before long. Watch this space!

You Need to Read This Book: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but when I picked up this book I knew I had to write about it…

After reading a string of disappointing books and generally feeling unenthused about all fiction I suddenly came to find ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS I’VE EVER READ EVER. Yes, the capitals were necessary. As with most great things in life, I just happened to randomly stumble across Ready Player One when it was mentioned on a book blog that I occasionally look at. Originally, I thought it might be a bit too much about video games and contain lots of obscure eighties references that I’m too young to understand properly (being born in ’88). But, as I was in a rut and I like Ferris Bueller and Star Wars I thought I’d give it a go anyway. And boy, am I glad I did!

Ready Player One is set thirty-odd years in the future when most of humanity escape the misery of the real world (global energy crisis, poverty, famine, disease) by jacking into a virtual utopia called the OASIS. In the OASIS you can be whoever you want and can do whatever you wish; there’s shopping, gaming, you can take holidays, watch films, visit planets created around your favourite books… the possibilities are endless. Children even attend school in the OASIS, and it’s common for people to live most of their lives virtually.

The book starts with the death of the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday. Halliday has no heir, so he instead decides to leave his multi-billion dollar fortune and control of the virtual world to whoever can find the “easter egg” hidden in the OASIS. He leaves a riddle and the promise of more riddles and games that need to be solved in order to find the egg. The whole planet becomes obsessed with solving the riddle. Halliday was a teenager in the eighties and was public about his affection for the decade, so everyone knows where to start looking for clues. Suddenly, the decade becomes incredibly popular and cool; people know everything about it, and eighties fashions start coming back in. The most dedicated easter egg hunters (“gunters”) know everything there is to know about the decade, from popular 80s arcade games, TV shows and films, to food chains and music. Everything ever mentioned by Halliday is picked over in minute detail by the “gunters”. However, for years, no one can solve the first riddle. The world is stumped.

It is at this point that we meet Wade Watts, a poor teenager who attends school in the OASIS and lives with his aunt and many others in a cramped trailer in Oklahoma. Wade is a “gunter” but as he has little to no money, he can’t travel around the OASIS looking for clues, and he can’t get more credits by fighting and building up his online experience without being kicked out of school. So Wade is confined to the planet in the OASIS that school is on, and he instead fills his time mastering 80s video games, watching Halliday’s favourite films and chatting to his friends in online chatrooms. One day, though, whilst in a Latin class, Wade suddenly has a flash of inspiration, and he knows where to go to solve the first riddle. The game is finally afoot. Wade has to battle against other “gunters” in order to find the egg, but most importantly, he has to take on an evil corporation called IOI who are intent on finding the easter egg and controlling the OASIS for themselves. I have probably told you too much about the plot already so I’ll stop there.

So, as you might have gathered, I absolutely LOVED this book! I thought it was just excellent! Firstly, I love a good quest story. They’re just so exciting (when done properly). Secondly, I am a huge fan of sci fi/ dystopian books so another box was ticked there. Thirdly, it’s all about the eighties! What more could you want from a book? I’m a bit sad that I didn’t get to grow up in the decade like Halliday did!

On top of all that, the book is excellently written. The pace never falters throughout, it is continually exciting. It’s rich in detail without being boring and all loose ends are very satisfyingly tied up at the end. The book has obviously been meticulously plotted by someone who is very fond and knowledgeable about being a geek in the eighties. What’s more, Ready Player One retains its credibility, it doesn’t spiral out of control like sci fi is known to do. Cline makes this version of the future seem realistic, and scarily probable. You could just imagine IOI being Google or Facebook with its unchallenged might and less-than-ethical approach to privacy. And the icing on the cake: the characters are loveable and witty and the book retains a humorous feel to it despite being set in a dystopian future. Overall, I was blown away by this book, and I wish I was still reading it.

If you’re not yet convinced, I would say that anyone who likes or has heard of any of the following things would love this book (this is not an exhaustive list, it’s just what came off the top of my head):

  • The Goonies
  • Back to the Future
  • Indiana Jones
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Out or any other 80s film with Matthew Broderick in it.
  • Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (I reviewed this book as well! Here)
  • Pacman or any old arcade video game
  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • Family Ties
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Breakfast Club
  •  The Matrix
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Any computer game ever

Even if this stuff sounds a bit geeky and silly for you, you should still read this book! It is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time, and I am expecting more exciting things to come from Cline (please?).

The Abuse of Absolute Adjectives

Ever since I blogged about The 5 Most Annoying Grammar Mistakes people keep mentioning other common errors which bug them. This post is a request from my mother, whose pet peeve is the commonly abused absolute adjective. When a TV presenter describes something as “very unique” she loses it! But as we’ll see, this problem is a simple matter of people not thinking about what they’re saying.

So, absolute adjectives are words such as unique, full, empty, excellent, complete, impossible, dead. Most normal adjectives can be compared and intensified, for example, red, redder, reddest or good, better, best. Adverbs such as very, more, less, most, best, almost, etc. are also used to compare and intensify adjectives, for example  “the sky is very dark tonight”. However, the special and surprising thing about absolute adjectives is that they’re absolute and they cannot be compared or intensified at all because it wouldn’t make any sense. There isn’t a big list of absolute adjectives that you can consult when in doubt (well I’m sure there probably is one somewhere but that’s not the point) because it’s usually logical and obvious whether you can apply very or most to an adjective. The best example of this is dead. You can’t really say something’s very dead or that someone is deader than someone else (unless you’ve been watching too many vampire programs, in which case this probably wasn’t the best example for me to choose). 

However, despite the remarkable amount of words in the English language, people still struggle to express themselves properly, which is where we fall into bad habits. People use the same words again and again, when really they should be consulting a thesaurus more regularly, or just putting more thought into what they really mean. Instead of choosing the word unique, you might think of opting for something else which fits the description better, say extraordinary or marvellous. If we widened our vocabulary a little, we wouldn’t be using all the same words again and again and therefore wouldn’t feel the need to intensify or compare things quite so much. If you keep using the word unique for everything, you start to feel the need to say that the most recent unique thing you’ve found is more or less so than the previous thing. So generally, I would recommend trying to use a greater variety of words to avoid falling into this sort of a trap.

Also, I think we’re quite enthusiastic these days, we just LOVE to say how GREAT or AWFUL everything is! Using one adjective on its own in a sentence without ten adverbs makes things sound boring and bland: “How was the show, dear?” “It was good”… See? Bland. You’re more likely to say, “It was REALLY THE BEST MOST EXCITING THING I’VE EVER SEEN EVER”. That’s more like it.

With these two elements in mind, we get people saying things like “that’s the most impossible challenge  yet” or “his voice is very unique”. It doesn’t really make sense when you think about it, how can something that’s one of a kind be very one of a kind? It’s surely beyond comparison, as there is nothing to compare it to. And similarly if something simply cannot be done, you cannot say that it is less or more cannot-be-done-able. It just doesn’t work, and in comes my mother, shouting at the TV again (“idiots”).

The worst thing about issues like this is that they’re often actively encouraged or left uncorrected by people who should know better. Wikipedia very helpfully states that although grading and comparing absolutes is discouraged in formal writing,

“such words are routinely and frequently qualified in contemporary speech and writing…Internet searches for “more complete” or “most complete” establish the frequency of this usage with millions of examples”

This is a completely pointless thing to say (here’s the link); just because lots of people do it doesn’t make it right! People frequently put your instead of you’re as well, but that doesn’t mean the English language is suddenly going to abandon you’re. I hope not anyway. I think I’m reading too much into this Wikipedia page, but they could have just said it was incorrect and left it at that!

So, on behalf of my mother, I would maybe ask that people in general put a little extra thought into what they really mean. She doesn’t really like shouting at the TV, she just feels a bit strongly about this particular point. There are SOOOOOO many words in the English language, let’s try and use some different ones eh? And for God’s sake, THINK about what you’re saying!

If you’re interested in learning more about this general subject it might be worth checking out comparative adverbs/adjectives and superlatives. They’re awesome.

Does anyone else have a pet peeve? I’d love to hear about it if you do! 🙂

A day in the life of a professional photographer

In the spirit of broadening the subject matter of my blog, I thought I’d post about what I’ve been up to recently. I LOVE photography but am a bit of a clueless amateur when it comes to taking photos myself. Recently, however, I decided to change all that by buying myself a fancy DSLR camera and learning how to use it properly. My older sister Anna Clarke is an amazing photographer and asked if I wanted to come along to one of her engagement shoots in Oxford (she mostly shoots weddings). Obviously I jumped at the chance! A real shoot! And there was the added bonus of having lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub where CS Lewis and Tolkein used to meet as members of The Inklings.

So, off I went with Anna to meet Charlotte and Mark, a friendly and enthusiastic couple from London. Seeing Anna in photographer mode was quite funny from my point of view, she was so professional and authoritative. It also became clear to me that I had my work cut out: Anna whizzed around at an impressive pace while I floundered desperately trying to adjust settings and get a good shot before Charlotte and Mark were whisked away to the next location.

Another thing that struck me was how as a photographer you have to build up an instant rapport with your clients. Anna is outgoing and confident; talking to strangers comes naturally to her and she can put people at ease instantly. She can direct people without sounding bossy and her enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not sure I’m the same, I’m a bit awkward with people I haven’t met before and prone to saying inappropriate/weird things. In a way it’s part of my charm(!), but I wouldn’t say putting people at ease is one of my strong points. I would like to think that this is something that I could work on though, and after this experience I have decided to try really hard at it.

Being a photographer is also exhausting! We had two hours before our car parking ticket ran out and we tramped all over the city. Anna was determined to get a good range of shots in different locations. By the end of it I was sweating, my feet hurt and I was gasping for a drink. Boy, was it fun though! If I wasn’t so obsessed with books and words I would definitely consider photography as a career path. I still might, if the writing thing doesn’t pan out! Although it is worth pointing out that I witnessed the most glamourous side of photography, I know Anna spends hours slogging away in front of her computer most days.

Enough of my rambling, this post is all about the photos! Below are some of the photos I took. It was fun getting Anna in them too, you can see how she gets her shots – be it by crouching in flower beds, getting dangerously close to cyclists or standing in the middle of the road. At the very bottom are three of Anna’s finished shots (I know, I know, you can hardly tell the difference between mine and hers!!! It’s uncanny!). I want to thank Anna for letting me tag along, it was an awesome afternoon! Also, thanks to Charlotte and Mark who let me gatecrash their engagement shoot. I hope they have a lovely wedding, they’re getting married in Central London and it sounds like the day is going to be ace!

And now for Anna’s shots…