Ibiza Writing Challenge

Blogging daily in August for my Ibiza Writing Challenge was incredibly rewarding.

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It was a pleasure to go through old photos, choose favourite quotes, and connect with new friends. Massive thanks to all of you who liked, followed and joined in the conversation and inspiration over the past month.

I’d like to do something special to thank everyone who’s read the blog over the past month, so I’ll put it to a vote. Would you like:

A) Another article in the ‘How To Be Creative’ series?
B) A downloadable PDF of the highlights of my ‘How to Write Non-Fiction’ series?
C) My Top 5 Writing Craft Guides as a PDF?

Please vote in the comments!

The Good Book – The Bible in Literature

The Bible is the most important book in the Western literary canon. There, I’ve said it. If you want to understand anything about literature in the English language you must read the Bible. Preferably the richly poetic King James Version.

I had the Bible ground into me from birth. My mother first took me to church when I was a few weeks old and for the next 16 years I barely missed a week of Sunday School and sermons. Plus summer camps, Vacation Bible School, and sundry other indoctrination opportunities. I also spent three years at a Seventh Day Adventist school. A place that forbade make-up, above-the-knee skirts and ear-piercing. The Bible was presented as the literal, infallible word of the Almighty. As such, it was revered, memorised, read cover to cover and never questioned.

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When I was 16 or so, I slipped the church’s insidious grasp and escaped into a world that didn’t require a belief in six days of creation or the fundamental evil of homosexuality.

Hallelujah.

I felt no need to return to the Bible. The other day, however, recalling Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ I loaded the King James Bible on my Kindle and read Ecclesiastes.

Literary and cultural references flew off the page:

‘The sun also ariseth’ Eccl 1:5 — Hemingway ‘The Sun Also Rises’

‘There is no new thing under the sun’ Eccl 1:9 — aphorism

‘There is no remembrance of former things’ Eccl 1:11 — Proust ‘Remembrance of Things Past’

‘To everything there is a season…’ Eccl 3:1 The Byrds ‘Turn Turn Turn’

‘Two are better than one’ Eccl 4:9 — aphorism

‘Better is a poor and a wise child’ Eccl 4:13 — surely Salinger’s reference for ‘It’s a Wise Child’

‘The heart of fools is in the house of mirth’ Eccl 7:4 — Edith Wharton ‘The House of Mirth’

‘A living dog is better than a dead lion’ Eccl 9:4 — quoted by Henry David Thoreau in ‘Walden’

‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all’ Eccl 9:11 — George Orwell, quoted in ‘Politics & the English Language’

It is almost spooky reading the Bible and seeing how many quotidian words and phrases we draw from it, to say nothing of stories, images, and allusions.

I don’t advocate religion but if you write in English you need the Bible like you need the alphabet.

What book can’t you live without? Share in the comments.

Reading for Pleasure

As writers, it is easy to get caught in production mode. We study ‘how to’ books, read improving blogs, swot up on tips for creating better characters or shaping an eight-point plot. Thanks to the bounty of the internet we stand in the midst of a torrent of useful information that promises to make us better versions of our creative selves.

Yet… What does any of this speak of the love of words?

It is all very well to hone our craft, but it is paramount that we not lose sight of the sheer pleasure of reading that inspired us in the first place.
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This week I binge-read books that are the literary equivalent of a three Michelin star meal: Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. About 1300 pages in total and lord knows how many hours of pleasurable indolence. Time I could have spent writing, studying, or planning a new project, sure, but — hell — what is the point of being a writer if not to slip the leash occasionally and romp in literary splendour?

Discipline, dedication and commitment are essential to writing. But so is wallowing in the delights of a delicious book. If you haven’t read either of the two novels mentioned, treat yourself, and do so post-haste. Or grab whatever tome you’ve been saving for a rainy day and rediscover the power and glory of great writing. The time you spend will be repaid amply in inspiration.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately? Share in the comments!

Creative Writing Tip Ctrl + F

According to a Google study 90% of people don’t know how to use CTRL+F to locate a word in a document or on a web page.

Being one of the 10% that DOES use CTRL+F will make a world of difference in your writing and editing.

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CTRL+F is to the creative writer what a spade is a gardener: it lets you whisk out the pesky weeds that pop up unbidden in your beautiful prose lawn.

In any piece of writing, fiction or non, it is easy to unconsciously repeat words or phrases. Our brains like repetition. If you’ve used a word once it will lurk in your head looking for a chance to get on the page again.

This is true of ideas, too. While editing my Oregon wine country book ‘Vine Lives’ I caught myself using similar descriptions in different chapters. A quick CTRL+F keyword search showed where the repetitions were and gave me a chance to find a more graceful, original way to make my point.

Next time you’re fine-tuning a piece of writing, read through once and jot down notable adjectives, ideas and phrases. Then do a CTRL+F search to make sure you aren’t accidentally overusing them. Your writing will be smoother and livelier for it.

Getting Started – Abigail Thomas

Wise words from writer Abigail Thomas on how to become a writer.

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When I was a little girl I kept a notebook of my favorite poems which included, of course, Joyce Kilmer’s Trees, and a short poem that goes: Little drops of water/little grains of sand/make the mighty ocean/and the pleasant land/ under which I had written reverently in flowery script, How true. I kept diaries too and they were filled almost entirely with what we had had for supper: “Tonight we had lambchops and baked potatoes it was so good” and then when I got older I wrote “Oh I love him so much” more times about more boys than I can bear to remember. These were not the diaries of a writer in the making. But ever since fourth grade when I’d written a story entitled ”I am a loaf of bread,” I longed to be a writer. Then I grew up.

Fiction? Impossible. How did anybody do it? Who was I? I thought a real writer was different, part of a club nobody had asked me to join, someone who knew a secret I didn’t know. A real writer had something to say, something important, and I didn’t know anything that mattered. Worse, I couldn’t make a story come together in my head. Where to start? How to finish? My problem was I was trying too hard and giving up too quickly. My problem was I thought you had to know what you were doing.

Nonsense. You just have to start.

Best Fiction of 2014

These are five of the best novels I read in 2014. I’ve never been, nor will be, one for tracking books based on their publication date. Good novels have legs. Interestingly, all my choices are in a profound way American. Am I getting nostalgic for the USA or is my subconscious still working out the split between love and fury that America inspires in me? You don’t need unresolved expatriate issues to appreciate these books, however. Read and be amazed.

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1. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain
Holy god this book is good. Beyond good. Brilliant. Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old soldier on leave from Iraq, being feted for acts of heroism he’d rather not have performed. Debut novelist Fountain pulls off the improbable feat of sustaining a compassionate satire that is as funny and tragic as it is bracingly smart.

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2. Trilobites – Breece D’J Pancake
Short stories for those of you who find Raymond Carver a bit jolly, or who want to know what a darker version of ‘Winter’s Bone’ would be like. ‘Trilobites’ tales are set in Appalachia and peopled with hard characters doing hard things. Absolutely addictive. Don’t start it near bedtime or you’ll be up all night.

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3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
This is classified as a ‘young adult’ novel which goes to show how silly classifications can be. There is nothing not grown-up about this wry, bittersweet autobiographical account of growing up on a reservation. Not surprisingly, it’s been banned by various schools. It can — and should — cause discomfort as it reveals a sliver of the human cost of America’s disgraceful history of genocide and marginalisation of First Peoples.

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4. Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve been hearing Lahiri’s name for a long time. Now I finally got around to reading her debut short story collection I am happy to add my voice to the chorus of fulsome praise. Poignant, sharp, engaging, and insight in the way great fiction can and should be.

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5. Stoner – John Williams
Williams’s writing is like water: cool, clear, consistent, somehow restorative. This is the life-story of William Stoner a dedicated but unexceptional man; a professor, husband, father and friend. It’s quiet specificity elevates it to the universal. Though I’ll say this: if it were written by and about a woman it would be called a ‘domestic’ novel and would have sunk without a trace. Not all so-called women’s fiction hits this literary standard, but I fear we dismiss even the stuff that does because we can’t see beyond gender.