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Writing Tips from Mark Twain.


 The advice that Mark Twain gave in a letter to D. W. Bowser in 1880 is famous and often quoted even these days. Here it is in full: Writer Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) circa 1907 “I notice that you useplain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way towrite English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t letfluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it.No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will bevaluable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength whenthey are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit,once fastened upon a person, is as hard to...
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Bellwether – A Sign 0f Things to come?


There has been a dispute in my daily paper about the use of the word bellwether. A reader complained that the word was regularly being used as a synonym for barometer, an indicator of change so to speak. For example, the way a particular town votes in a bye-election is seen as an indication – a bellwether – of how the whole country would vote in a general election. But this was not what he understood the word to mean. The original meaning of bellwether was a lead sheep, usually a castrated ram with a bell round its neck, that other sheep would follow, making the shepherd’s life a bit easier. The word comes from middle English belle (bell) and wether (castrated ram). Even by the thirteenth ce...
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Reading Yourself to Good Health


It is now generally agreed that doctors prescribe too many drugs. They genuinely want to help their patients, but don’t have much time to listen. So a quickly written prescription, and another, and another … leaves both patient and doctor feeling ‘job done’ – if only briefly. But other interventions are felt to be as good as, or better than, pills: cognitive behaviour, trips to the gym, walking (or just stroking) a dog, deep breathing, massages, and many others. The only problem is they take more time to sort, and require more motivation from the patient. There are also people who advocate reading as a cure for many ills, including depression. Take Laura Freeman, for example, the author of T...
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No Such Thing as an Irish Leprechaun?!


Leprechauns are quintessentially Irish. Those impish little fellows, clad in green, creating mischief and hiding pots of gold at the end of rainbows pop up throughout Irish folklore. There is even a derivation of the word in the dictionary of medieval Irish that was first compiled in 1913. The word was originally spelt lupracan, which itself was derived from the old Irish for small – lu, and body – corp. This all seemed to make perfect sense. Unfortunately for Irish sensitivities, recent research by linguists from Cambridge and Queens (Belfast) universities, have found a different derivation. Worse, the leprechaun isn’t even Irish in origin! Luprecan, they have discovered, comes from the Lat...
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Not a Political Comment


This blog is not the place for political comment. However extraordinary the events unfolding, I have been determined to resist the temptation to make any comment. To do so, it is said, risks losing friends Left, Right and Centre. However, as one of Oscar Wilde’s characters said ‘I can resist anything but temptation,’ So, just this once, here goes. Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gamble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe. Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch. He took his vorpal sword in hand. Longtime the manxome foe he sought. So rested he by the Tu...
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Ending Book Poverty


Many people reading this blog are writers. All who read it are (obviously) readers. Books are an integral part of our lives, and a house without them is unthinkable. But this is not the case universally, even in Britain. Every week, The Big Issue magazine in the UK has a feature with the generic heading changemakers. This week the article was about Dee-Dee Crosher, under the title Unpacking the Answer to Book Poverty. Dee-Dee was a child actor, then talent agent, who decided a couple to years ago to take a break from agency work whilst she thought about a change in direction. Still under thirty, she had always loved reading and whilst thinking about what to do next she set about finding and ...
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A YA book for the end of the holidays?


And Alex Still Has Acne is my novel for Young Adults that has been an Amazon best-seller, and was re-published by Solstice Publishing in 2018. It’s a short, chirpy, read with a feel good ending, but a few dark episodes along the way: acne, adoption, alcohol, and anorexia, to mention just the things beginning with ‘a’. Plenty going on as well as the usual problems of growing up, and dealing with with schools and parents who just don’t understand. Ideal, you may think, as a quick read before going back to school! What is the novel about? Here’s what it says on the back cover. Life for fourteen year old Alex is OK most of the time. He enjoys school, has a best friend Sam, and a pretty and only ...
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What is an ‘Easy Rider’?


Peter Fonda died last week so, not unnaturally, most newspapers carried articles about him and his most iconic film Easy Rider. Both he and his co-star explained that they chose the title because ‘an easy rider is a person that is not a pimp, but lives off a woman,’ (Hopper). Fonda went further, saying it was a comment on the state of America at the end of the 1960s. The film was hugely popular, but not with the Hollywood moguls, and Fonda struggled to find films and roles that would bring him equal fame. But were they right about the meaning of easy rider? Originally the term meant an expert horse rider, or horse that was easy to ride. (Transfer this to a motorbike and the film title seems ...
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CAST OFF – Stories for the beach?


CAST OFF is my collection of short stories based on female characters in plays by Shakespeare. It was published by Solstice in 2017. In each of the thirteen stories I take one of his characters and imagine what she might be thinking and doing when not on stage. So we have Kate, from the Taming of the Shrew, thumping her creator for writing such horrid role for her; Nerissa, from The Merchant of Venice, delighting in dressing up in men’s clothes and cavorting round town with her mistress, Portia; Cassandra, from Troilus and Cressida, revelling in poor personal hygiene and loud wails; Hermia, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, getting blind drunk and passing out under a tree in a pub beer garden; H...
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Pet names and Hypocorisms


You might not have heard the term hypocorism before, but I suspect you’ve committed a few when writing. And quite a few more when speaking. The word is Greek in origin, but the practice goes back thousands of years and can be found in all the Indo – European languages. The hypocoristic principle is basically to take a single syllable word, double the consonants and add an open vowel. You can see this at work in family and pet names: Grandmother – Gran – Granny Mother – Mum/Mom – Mummy /Mommy Father – Dad – Daddy. Sarah – Sal – Sally Thomas – Tom – Tommy Ann – Nan – Nanny. This last one is interesting as in the nineteenth century Ann was used as a pet name for a female goat, now known as a na...
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Memoir or Autobiography?


“The past is a foreign country.” So said L P Hartley, the author of The Go Between. When it comes to people’s recollections however, it may be more true to say that the past is several foreign countries, because what we each remember with absolute certainty is quite often different from how others who were there remember it. To check this out, ask your siblings or parents about a family event from your childhood, and see if they remember the details in the same way you have. To get an accurate picture of events from the past, historians like to listen to the accounts of people who were there. But then they have to check these against the records. And bear in mind that documents from the time...
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The French are in the mood for love!


Every so often, the French throw a wobbly about the numberof English words creeping into their language. I remember as a school girl beingtold about the dangers of Franglais andthat, while the French might say le weekend,we should talk about the fin de la semaine in our oral exam, if the conversationturned on what we might be doing at the weekend. Then there was the joke (orperhaps it wasn’t) that the French, having cottoned onto the English liking fortea and cake at 5pm, and themselves enjoying a mid-afternoon snack before themore substantial main meal in the evening, had brought the whole thing forwardan hour, so that A quatre heures, nousfive o’clockerons. (At four o’clock, we have a ligh...
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Unmarried and on the shelf – or not?


I recently went to an open day at the local medieval weaver’s cottage that has been restored to close to its original design. It was a fascinating step back in time – the smallness of the house for a family, let alone the only upstairs space being put aside for the loom; and the damp and smokey living conditions, with the only source of heat a fire in the middle of the living room floor and no chimney. It’s no wonder, when you add the fragments of fibre escaping from the yarn as the weaver worked his loom, that most of the inhabitants suffered with chronic chest problems. The guide was a mine of information about the the last man who had lived there as a weaver, Apparently he needed twelve l...
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Do readers want good or worthy novels?


Dorothy Sayers (of Lord Peter Wimsey fame) once commented sadly that there are “only rotten stories in good English, or good stories in rotten English.” Not entirely true, of course – there are many books that sell well because they tell stories people want to read and are also well written. A surprise to me was, when I forced myself to read one of my then teenage son’s Terry Pratchett novels, how entertaining it was, and how well he chose his words and phrases to create his imaginary, quirky, world. Dickens was even more popular in his time, and is still regards as one of the ‘greats.’ But in recent years it seems that a thumping good read is not always seen as deserving any award. The Time...
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Well, you’ve got to laugh!


Ever started listening to a comedy on the radio and had to switch off because the canned laughter is driving you mad? Because the jokes simply weren’t that funny, so why be forced to find them amusing? Wouldn’t the programme be better without any laughter as a backdrop? Give it to me straight man, I’ll laugh when I want to! Canned laughter was not introduced to improve bad jokes, butto indicate to the listeners that it was actually a joke (you don’t say!) Butrecent research has found that the canned laughter does more than just signal ajoke has just been made and, far from being a turn off, it makes the joke seemfunnier. The research, recently published in Current Biology, tested this theory...
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Japanese poetry


Everyone, well a lot of people who are interested in poetry, that is, will have heard of the haiku. This is the epigrammatic Japanese verse form comprised of just three lines and seventeen syllables. It doesn’t need to rhyme, but is more of a challenge to write if it does. It is hard to find good examples from famous Japanese poets as the translation will often have more or fewer syllables. But here is one from Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1696): In the twilight rain / Those brilliant – hued hibiscus / A lovely sunset. And here is a very bad example of my own: The sky is so grey / The sun is behind the clouds / I hate the winter. A typical haiga – painting plus haiku Not many people realise that the...
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Hold the Front Page!


My first problem as a writer is coming up with a compelling opening paragraph. The harder I try, the more contrived it becomes. Very occasionally I succeed but, exhausted by the effort, the rest of the story just peters out. As a result I have some sympathy for the jobbing journos on local newspapers who week after week are expected to create not one, but several eye-catching stories even during a week where nothing much has happened on their patch at all. The magazine, The Oldie, has regularly printed examples of such non-stories in  their column Not Many Dead, and some years ago they compiled an  short anthology using the same title. Here are a few of my favourites from the section on loca...
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Can you write a six word story?


It feels like there are more and more competitions for short stories these days. And by short, I mean really short – flash fiction competitions for stories with fewer than 500, 300, or even 100 words. Even a competition run by the Sunday Times for a 10 word story. It seems like a modern trend, but Ernest Hemingway was celebratedfor his brevity nearly one hundred years ago. Not just were his novels spare,without a word wasted, his first story collection, in our time, featured eighteen stories in which only four had morethan 250 words, and the shortest was a mere 75. (For comparison; I’ve alreadyexceeded 100 to get to this point.) Hemingway was thought for many years to have written a storyin ...
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Charles Dickens and copyright law.


Charles Dickens is famous as a Victorian storyteller par excellence. Through his novels he campaigned for social justice and educational reform (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby to name just two); created memorable male characters (David Copperfield, Pip in Great Expectations, and Scrooge in The Christmas Carol); but wasn’t so hot on portraying realistic women (Little Dorrit). His works were very popular, with readers waiting impatiently for each installment, and family groups gathering round the hearth whilst the new episode was read out loud (no telly in those days). But, despite personally campaigning through his literature for better education for all, his books were primarily bought by t...
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Beware of ‘writing fancy.’


Beware of ‘writing fancy.’ This is the advice of Benjamin Dreyer in his book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Some writers and grammarians would argue that there is no such thing as an ‘utterly correct’ way of writing; words and grammar evolve, and so long as your reader can understand clearly what you have written in the way you intended, it is correct enough. But Dreyer is the chief copy editor of the American publisher, Random House, so his advice may carry more weight than the writers of other style guides – especially if you want to get published by Random House. Perhaps surprisingly, Dryer approves of Twitter. For him “It’s brought a punchy smartness to ...
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