Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Speaking from the Heart: Dictation Software, by Dan Metcalf

I was heartened recently to see that a story I had begun writing over three years ago in a notebook was actually pretty good, or at least had promise. My heart sank however when I realised that in order to turn it into a book that I actually wanted to present to publishers, I would have to type it up.
I’m a slow writer. Or to be exact, I’m a slow typist. If I was still allowed to hand in a manuscript, scrawled in ink and blood with blotches all over the folio, I would, like Jo March in Little Women (okay, maybe not the blood). But I suppose now we live in the 21st century and writers have to beam their stories over the interwebs like we’re living in a Philip K Dick novel. Typing up a story from handwritten notes is the worst, not least because I have unreadable handwriting. My eyes flit from keyboard to screen to the page, and it becomes slow and tiresome. It would take me hours to type up the story.
And then I remembered something I had heard on a podcast about dictation software. There are lots of different ways of speaking your story aloud, the most popular being Dragon dictation, but a free and simple way of testing it out was Google Docs. If you have a google account for anything, then you already have access to this and you can run it right from your chrome Browser (also free). So with a rubbish netbook, an old hands-free mic from a smart phone and my best BBC announcer voice, I set about reading the story aloud.
I was pretty pleased with the results the story went from this:

To this:

Some glaring errors there, not least the replacement of ‘pookas’ to ‘hookers’ (oops...). The software had trouble with the made-up word ‘grublin’ for which I will forgive it. A way of remedying that I guess would be to just say a recognised word - ‘goblin’ for example – and then perform a quick Find & Replace in MS Word when editing.
I had also tried to include punctuation in my speech. The Google system recognises a few stock phrases that instantly transform themselves into punctuation but not all, and you can add others later in the edit (the phrases in question are ‘Comma’, the very American ‘Period’ for full stop, ‘Exclamation Point’, ‘Question Mark’, ‘New line’ and ‘New Paragraph’). Fairly simplistic, but I cannot vouch for other software such as Dragon, the well-established market leader in this area.
I had a full chapter written in less than ten minutes, with another ten minutes dedicated to editing, which I did in LibreOffice, my word processor of choice. I’m happy with the result:
Once upon a snowfall, when the woodland burst with pookas and nymphs, a lonely grublin sat on its stump and grumbled.
It grumbled because that's what grublins do. They are happy (or unhappy, as the case may be) to sit in the woods and complain about things.
It's too scrimping cold,” it muttered to itself. “Never known a winter like it.”
But it had. It had known no fewer than four hundred and thirty-six winters in its lifetime and each of them had been as cold and bleak as the last. For each of these winters it had sat on its stump as it always had, and grumbled.
And other writers swear by it. Kevin J Anderson, the bestselling sci fi author, dictates whole tomes and tidies them up later (with might account for his epic output). Self-publishing gurus Mark Dawson and Joanna Penn are experimenting with dictation and there are numerous books on using the technique to its best effect (sources here and here).
So would I use dictation for a whole book? Well… probably not. As an avowed introvert who can barely string a sentence together out loud in real life, I find that silence when working helps to contribute to my writing. Also, I work in coffee shops and libraries a lot and would get some pretty strange looks whilst recounting tales of fairy-folk. But as a short cut to getting my tales onto the old PC? Yeah, I think it might just work...
Do you dictate? Would you? Would the result be the same as parking your backside and typing away? Let me know in the comments.
Dan Metcalf is a writer of books for children. His latest book, Paw Prints in the Somme, is available at danmetcalf.co.uk/pawprints

Monday, 21 January 2019

Finding my voice by Anne Booth

These last years have been rather stressful, and for some reason I managed to lose my singing voice in the course of them. I was caring for children, and elderly parents, and working hard as a writer, and I think, not properly processing emotions about family things and burying them, and somehow in the course of this I lost the ability to sing.  My  throat would become very painful when I tried to sing - I felt as if I had a knot or a lump in it and I couldn't express anything. This  was huge for me, as I have always sung - it was a part of me, and I have been asked to sing solos at friends' weddings and at church and at parties and events, and I loved doing that - I  wasn't scared of doing it - I just loved performing for my friends or being part of worship, and sharing the beautiful songs I knew with others, and I loved singing along with my husband playing the guitar.  But then it went - and if I managed an occasional note it didn't sound good, and mostly I just felt physical pain and stopped and was mute. No more carols at carol services, no more solos at mass, no more singing with the family. I listened, but I couldn't join in.

 Losing my voice made me very sad. Then, last year at the end of a wonderful week at Chez Castillon retreat house in France and lots of relaxed laughter with lovely people, I found it briefly - not in a folk song but in a happy song from 'Oliver'. I was amazed and so grateful  (and this is a testimony to how brilliant Chez Castillon is and how relaxed I felt there) -  but then I returned home and  it went again,  and I thought it would never come back to stay. However, I recently did something which was wonderful for me. I booked a session with a voice coach and, magically, she found my voice again. I cried.  Before I could sing her a folk song, she had to go right back to basics with me. We talked, and she helped me sit comfortably.  She had to teach me to breathe in, and hold my breath, and breathe out. One of the exercises we did was that when I breathed out, I could groan or make whatever sounds I chose to express and to get out, my stress. I was nearly too embarrassed to do this and it was very difficult for me - but I was desperate to sing again, so I did it. It was very therapeutic. She told me not to care about the sounds being pretty or nice - just make them. Then she got me to lay a note of my choice on the outward breath. Then to vary the note, and pay attention to my singing, and, to cut a long story short, not long into the  session with her, easily, without any pain, I could make music again and sing as powerfully and clearly as I had years ago. I can't express how wonderful it was to hear the notes again and recognise my own singing voice. I hope to go back to her as this is a work in progress and my throat has tightened up with old patterns of stress- but now I have hope that, following her advice, I will be able to sing the way I used to.  I know I can get my voice back. She does group work too. I think she is amazing.


The amazing voice coach told me, when I finally sang to her, that my singing voice nurtured the person hearing it, but that first of all, to keep it, I needed to nurture myself and sing lots just for myself. She was so lovely. She also said that I had never lost the ability to sing, just that somewhere deep inside I had not let myself. I realised that I was self-censoring and blocking emotions and hadn't been allowing myself to be myself and sing as me, with all the emotions I had been feeling over the years and through bereavements.  She was right. She also made me cry, because she said that having not sung for years would not have damaged it, ( as I feared)  and she felt that my voice had come back stronger for the experiences I had brought to it.

I think that is like writing.

Hopefully, as writers, our writing nurtures our readers, but we have to write for ourselves first. We have to let ourselves explore difficult emotions and concepts, make ugly noises, experiment, try different pitches, play around with it, enjoy it for its own sake. We mustn't tighten up trying to please some imaginary reader or even a real publisher (!) We must be prepared to write stuff nobody but ourselves will ever see - in fact WANT to write stuff nobody but ourselves will ever see. We must accept and get to know and nurture ourselves and keep listening to ourselves so that we know our own voice better than anyone - and then we will know and feel whether we are expressing ourselves and being true to ourselves when we write for others.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Multilingualism and Mother Tongues - Joan Lennon

Charlemagne is reported to have said, "To have another language is to possess a second soul."*  I'd like to share Christine De Lucca's video about the place of Shetlandic in her life and writing, as a child and as an adult.

Christine's video is part of the Wikitongues project.  You can find out more about Wikitongues here.

* though of course he wouldn't have said it in English.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Hadestown: Interpreting Myth the Musical Way - Lucy Coats

Last month, I talked about rebooting old stories, and this month I want to continue that theme, in a slightly different vein. As many of you will know, reinterpreting myths is my bread and butter, whether as straight retellings, or using them as the bedrock of my fiction. So when I found out that one of my favourite Greek myths was being put on the stage as a musical, I had to go. Hadestown: The Myth, The Musical is based around the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a tale of love and loss, and the power of doubt -- and what better myth to use the power of music to connect with an audience? This iteration of the tale has taken a long time to evolve -- it's over ten years since Anaïs Mitchell, the lyricist and composer, took the album which became the beginnings of a folk opera on the road in Vermont, with a school bus, some puppets and some musicians. Now it's had a massively successful run as a full-blown musical at the National Theatre in London (still on till 26th January, and if you can get a ticket, please do!), and will be on Broadway from the end of March.

Mitchell and her director, Rachel Chavkin, have set the story in a speakeasy in Depression Era America, with live music right on the stage. Orpheus (Reeve Carney) is a starry-eyed songwriter, searching for the perfect notes to recreate the lost song of summer, and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) is a starving, homeless, streetwise waif shivering in a too-big coat, who just wants to assuage her hunger and be warm. In this particular version, it is this hunger and homelessness which is the key to Eurydice's journey to the underworld, seeking a better life, rather than the original death by snakebite. Deserted by Orpheus, who is locked into his quest for the perfect note, summer is over, Persephone has departed again to the Underworld and the cold winter winds have returned, along with doubt and desperation. In the absence of any other choice, Eurydice makes a devil's bargain with Hades, as women so often have to do, and are so often wrongly judged for. She will give him what he wants (her soul, her labour), although she doesn't really understand until she is down in Hadestown, working for no wages, what she is signing up for. It is an all too poignant metaphor for the precarious nature of the decisions so many real-life women have to take just to survive.

In the underworld itself, world-weary capitalist Hades (Patrick Page) and a bored, S.A.D.-haunted Persephone (Amber Gray) are having marriage problems, as Hades concentrates more and more on the task of building his never-ending wall, and less and less on the happiness of his wife, who turns to drink and drugs to survive.

When Mitchell first wrote the piece, President Trump was nowhere on the political horizon, but today the words of 'Why We Build the Wall' have a resonance she probably never imagined, and listening to Page's gut-trembling bass singing it as his chorus of grimy workers toil unendingly in the darkness is an extraordinary coming together of ancient myth and present day reality. Just close your eyes, listen to the clip below, and imagine that desperate train of northward-bound immigrants hoping for a better life, for a way out of poverty. But they are unwanted. even in Hell:
"Because we have, and they have not, because they want what we have got, the wall keeps out the enemy, and the enemy is poverty, and we build the wall to keep us free."

Of course, poverty, with its companions unemployment, starvation and degradation, was a very real enemy in the American Depression. The roots of it lay in the mistakes and cynical exploitations of the financial sector, much as it does today, but the resonance this piece has now goes much further. Poverty is not just an internal problem. Poverty in this case has expanded (because it is virtually impossible to watch this piece and not think of Trump's America), to include the demonisation of the other, the immigrant, anyone with a different religion or skin colour, or sexual orientation. It's not overt, but it is there, lurking in the shadows, and it gives Hadestown a chilling relevance I had not expected.

The music itself travels through jazz, blues, folk, indie and rock in a fluid rhythm, and the audience is guided through it all by the psychopomp Hermes (Andre de Shields), whose wise asides give us the clues and keys to untangling the final destination of doubt and despair.

I will freely confess that I had doubts before I went. I'm not a particular lover of musicals (no, not even Hamilton, which I am maybe the only person in the world not to like), but this was more of a folk opera than a musical, and I was fascinated and engaged from the first note. I said earlier that Orpheus and Eurydice is one of my favourite myths. I was trying to pin down why that is, and I think the answer is that it is one of the great love tragedies, the ones which provide true catharsis, which suck you in and spit you out on the other side of them, changed. I have seen many versions of this story performed, from Jean Anouilh to Tennessee Williams, and each time I have had the feeling, (much as I always do with Othello) that this time, this time, it will be all right, that he won't turn round too soon, that Eurydice will be saved. But, of course, she never is. The utter stillness and silence in the theatre at that moment, the sense of loss and sorrow, was palpable, and I didn't see how the cast were ever going to find a way to end it which didn't leave the audience desolated. But Hermes managed it, telling us that the eternal retelling of the tale, the renewal of the cycle of storytelling is what gives us life and hope that maybe one day things will change. It was a masterclass in bringing us back from the brink of despair.

I truly hope that if you get a chance to see Hadestown, you will. It is the best thing I've seen on the stage for years, and the music will ring in my bones for a long time to come. Myths are only alive for as long as they are retold and refreshed -- this one will live forever.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review 
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Friday, 18 January 2019

Haunting places - by Lu Hersey

Have you ever wondered if you haunt places by mistake? Perhaps in recurring dreams about houses or landscapes you once knew well, which change and morph each time you find yourself there? 

Rosia Bay - now derelict

At the moment I’m in a kind of limbo, having just finished writing one book and mulling over the idea for the next one. It's a conjuring process, which seems to be dredging up strange, convoluted dreams about places I once lived.

Perhaps binge reading Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series (fabulously feisty young ghost hunters if you haven’t encountered them) and watching hours of Star Trek Discovery (which has a parallel universe theme and a generous dollop of quantum physics thrown in) isn’t helping, but it’s started me wondering about dream landscapes. Do others see us there while we're dreaming?

As a child, my family moved a lot. By the time I was 11, I’d lived in ten different places and gone to various different schools. I repeated this ingrained pattern of constantly moving in my early adulthood, and at least four of the houses I once lived in no longer exist in the real world. But they all still haunt my dreams - and I wonder if I haunt them.

My longest running recurring dreams are set in Gibraltar. My father was in the navy, and we moved there when I was seven and stayed for three years (which was the longest posting he ever had in one place). I still dream about it quite regularly - the house we lived in, the old harbour where we went swimming, and the old library.

By the house, in my favourite tree. My den was right at the top.

We lived there back in the days when parents didn’t worry so much about the whereabouts of their children. My mother hadn't a clue where I was much of the time. Her main concern was that I stayed out from under her feet as much as possible – though even she might have balked at the hours me and my friends spent in places marked MOD PROPERTY – KEEP OUT. Gibraltar is (or was) a place riddled with caves and tunnels from all periods of history. All incredibly dangerous, very scary, and a total magnet for children.

Thanks to the advent of Google Maps, it’s now possible to look up places almost anywhere in the world. Which is a good thing in some ways, bad in others. It’s easy not to revisit places you once knew if you have to make the effort to physically travel there, but with Google Maps you can simply take a peek from your writing desk. So being between books, and having a bit of time on my hands, I made the mistake of revisiting online.

The house, with its amazing view of Spain and Africa across the Straights of Gibraltar, and the garden with my favourite tree of all time next to it – gone. Completely covered by a block of luxury apartments. The den I made at the top of the tree and spent so many hours sitting in, now only exists in my memory.

Or does it? Do I still sit there, up in the ghostly branches, in someone’s luxury apartment?

Recovering from the shock of the demolished house, I searched for the harbour we swam in. Rosia Bay was where Nelson’s ship,Victory, came in with his body after the Battle of Trafalgar. A place where sailing ships once bought their victuals - and where I spent so many afternoons after school (which finished at 1pm in the summer because of the heat), swimming, lying up on the flat rooftops of the old victualers with my friends, eating penny chews. 

Rosia harbour - I'm about to topple in at the family swimming gala. 

I discovered the harbour is completely abandoned, up for development. I found a picture of the steps I used to go down every day to fish, or swim, or jump on a lilo, the concrete now crumbling into the sea. 

Yet I spent so many hours there, floating between the scary, barnacled, sea urchin covered pillars of the pier, gazing down into the scary depths with my mask and snorkel. And at night I still go there, encountering sea monsters coming up from the deep. Will the people who buy the new apartments still see a ghost me, swimming frantically to the rafts that once floated out in the bay, hoping sharks won't catch me?

So with yet another part of my history wiped out, I googled the library. How I loved that library. We went there at least once a week and it’s where I found everything I read back then, from Enid Blyton to Tom’s Midnight Garden. There was a pergola outside, covered in wisteria that bloomed in the spring, and I hoped one day I could have a pergola just like that.

At least the building still stands. It’s no longer a public lending library, but a kind of museum – and a picture I found shows the pergola, or part of it, still standing. Good. I can still walk there sometimes at nights without being in someone's apartment.

If you happen to visit Gibraltar anytime, you won't be able to go to my old house or climb the tree, or swim in Rosia harbour. But you can go to the Garrison Library. If you do, maybe you'll see me there, a shade in the shade of the wisteria.
If so, please let me know. I've been wondering.

Lu Hersey

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Writing resolutions by Tracy Darnton

It's mid-January. How are we all doing on the New Year writing resolutions?

Here are mine:

  • I shall write every day   other day   at least once a week month
  • I shall not waste time looking at Tweets on Brexit or Trump which tend to wind me up and make me incapable of writing anything
  • I shall diligently update my website, Linked In profile and Facebook pages even though I am terrible at it and hate doing it
  • I shall schedule my blogs in advance and solve why my photos are always blurry
  • I shall file all my receipts immediately 
  • I shall produce efficient To Do lists

  • I shall plan any novel in great detail before I write anything
  • I shall not bribe myself with Creme Eggs from the very handy Co-op
  • I shall not distract myself from writing a novel by a sudden urge to clean out the cutlery drawer or put photos from the last ten years in albums
  • I shall write an amazing best-selling novel forthwith
  • I shall not endlessly fiddle about with all the lovely stationery I got for Christmas
  • I shall not set myself unrealistic writing goals

Please tell me it's OK that all of them are broken already?

Tracy Darnton's YA thriller The Truth About Lies was published by Stripes in July. She has an MA in Writing for Young People. You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

A Year of Reading by Claire Fayers

It’s the time of year for looking forward, so I’m going to look back.

As an author, you’re supposed to know your readers, and the one reader I know better than anyone is myself. That is why, at the start of 2018, I decided to keep a reading list and track my habits for the whole year.

Here are the results.

Total Books Read: 100

That’s bad for me. 2018 was a stressful year and my reading list showed gaps of several weeks at a time when I didn't read anything. June was my worst month with only 2 books read. Maybe that's not surprising as my own book, Mirror Magic, came out mid-June and I was tied up with publicity. I made up for it in July with a rush of 13 books. For the rest of the year, I ranged from 6 books to 11 per month.

What Did I Read?

This is where I bring out the fancy pie charts.

Unsurprisingly, middle grade was by far the biggest category with a total of 49 books. Languishing at the bottom is a single book of poetry (a verse rendition of the Mabinogi), but I only counted entire books. If I’d included all the poems I read, the total would be a lot more. Folk tales gets its own category as I often search folk and fairy tales for writing inspiration. Again, I generally pick out individual tales rather than readying whole books, so it’s a small category – but important in terms of what I write. 

The main surprise was to see adult fiction overtake YA. My book club is partly to blame, and I'm also more likely to abandon adult fiction - I failed to finish four books in the year and they were all adult.

Where Did I Read?

No surprises here, either. My prime reading spot is at home, followed by reading when on holiday or travelling. If anyone has read in unusual places, I'd like to know.

What Format?

The choice of book formats leads to much discussion. What's better - hard copy or e-book? Does listening to an audio book count as reading? (My answer is yes.)

I’ve been making a real effort to use my local library and I’m glad to see it’s working. I still buy far more books than I borrow but I try to check the library before running to the bookshop. I can also see that I buy too many books on my kindle. I’ve always told myself I use the kindle for reading whilst travelling, but in fact, of 28 kindle books, 14 were read at home. I need to do better.

Only one audio book, which I borrowed after discovering my library offers e-book and audio book loans that can be downloaded to your phone. Very useful – I’ll be using this service again.

Why Did I Read It?

This is the big question – what makes a reader choose your book? Being a member of a book club has small but significant effect – 7 books in the year. I like being in a book club because it makes me read books I may never have chosen myself. By far the biggest influence though is personal connection. Either I know the author or illustrator, have met them online or in person, or I’ve seen the book recommended. A total of 45 books chosen.

Awards also have a small but significant effect – 10 books were read because they’d won an award or appeared on a shortlist.

One thing is missing off this list – reviews. Good reviews may make me more likely to notice a book, but they don’t make me rush out and buy it.

What Did I Learn?

Libraries are wonderful and we should do everything we can to support them.

Kindle is too convenient. I’m going to pause before hitting ‘buy’ and ask myself if I really need that book right now, or can I wait a few days and get it from my local bookshop instead.

The people who recommend books online are priceless. I have discovered many new favourite authors because of them.

Reviews and prizes are nice to have but they don't necessarily bring in new readers. 

And now, of course, having completed 2018, I need book recommendations for this year? Which books are you looking forward to in 2019?