Poetry mnemonics – singing up your iambics

I am just getting round to the idea that rhythm in prose is a thing and that poetry might hold some clues as to how best to apply it. The trouble is, iambic means nothing to me no matter how many times I look it up; trochaic – same thing, and don’t get me started on anapestic which I still think of as a kind of wallpaper. Whoever invented these monikers surely wanted to keep the whole business in-house like a kind of holy catechism that novitiates have to prove they have learned before being allowed to voice any opinion. But this doesn’t help if you need a kind of shorthand, a word that covers the bases and that you can use at least in your own head to bring to mind and flag up a rhythm so you can use knowledge and strategy in your writing instead of just instinct.

Well, I like music and although I can barely tell a three-four-time from a – ok, I’ve no idea what the others are called – I can play them in my head. So I found some tracks that seem to exemplify the impenetrable poetic terms that slide straight out of my brain the minute I’ve stopped reading the definition. Here we go, the sections of verse are from Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry:

Iambic: That time of year thou mayst in me behold. That’s the chorus of the Quartermaster’s Stores. Go on, try it, ‘My eyes are dim I cannot see ...’

Trochaic: Tell me not in mournful numbers. My Darlin’ Clementine, yes?

Spondaic (I kid you not): Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! Try ‘Original’ by Leftfield.  It looks like it might leave ‘O Sea’ dangling a bit but let’s not get picky, we’re on a roll.

Anapestic: And the sound of a voice that is still. The Mexican Hat Dance, for sure.

Dactylic: This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock (the last foot is a trochee, but then you knew that). I’m hearing Oompah band for this so I dug out an album of Tyrolean music (bought after a skiing holiday, as you do) and found a track. Right or wrong – and it’s a close thing – you’re not going to forget your dactylics once you’ve seen Your Man in the lederhosen dancing to Auerhahn-Plattler. 

So, that’s my list, what’s yours?

When it’s better not to be shortlisted

Recently, I failed to make the short list in a competition* I had entered. It’s not the first time by a long chalk, nor is rejection by publishers or requests for revisions to something I thought was fine in its first iteration (often it turned out better in the end which reflects well on the editorial critique), so when I say I’m actually quite relieved, it isn’t a defensive swipe at the ones that made it. Maybe you’ve found yourself in this position too: you enter in good faith, you’re shortlisted, you cheer. Then you read the stories you’re shortlisted with and the only acceptable option is to win outright because to lose to any of them – especially publicly – would be horrendous.

More horrendous though is the danger of judging one’s work within the scale of any given list and not according to an internal yardstick for what constitutes ‘good’. While Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures has made the amusing but spot-on point that ‘good [art] is what enough of the right people say it is‘ (and that ‘the right people’ shift according to what matters most – sales, popularity, income, or critical appraisal), establishing a sense of one’s own competence is a valuable way of avoiding being blown around by zeitgeist, popular opinion, those little rules that keep appearing via Facebook or twitter, and the Emperor’s New Clothes of defensive approval.

Writers are probably the group most vulnerable to these external influences when it comes to measuring their own talent and skill. That they usually work alone means there is no obvious way of developing a capacity for objective self appraisal. Add to this the tendency for women (on the whole) to make external attributions for success (‘I was lucky’) and internal ones for failure (‘I’m no good’), the landscape for self blame and being buffeted by unpredictable winds is more expansive than many can handle. No wonder we’re always on the hunt for the tips, tricks and aphorisms that seem to promise success.

I’m a self-confessed male-typical thinker which is the exact opposite of the way (most) women see things – if my stuff isn’t well received, my default position is that it’s nothing to do with me! I’ve learned to pull back from that over the years and to understand that other people might just have a valid point. Out of that has come a measured approach to feedback and criticism that allows for change but, crucially, doesn’t dent my self esteem. This seems to me to be a far better position than trying to accommodate everything and having one’s confidence perpetually steamrollered by the vagaries of opinion that might or might not have real validity.

So I wonder, are male authors more confident about their work in line with male-typical thinking, or does the isolation and introspection of the writing process and dependency on subjective, inconsistent feedback modify that bias towards the female-typical profile? Alternatively, does that isolation drive and hone self reliance for both men and women in a way that other kinds of appraised activity don’t?

Given that almost anything could be better and that we will edit perpetually given the chance, how do you decide something is good enough to go out, and if it’s rejected or attracts negative (or positive) feedback, how do you figure out what to take on board and what to dismiss? It’s a one star/five star world out there and perspective is everything!

* I won’t mention it because that would be churlish but I need to just exclude a few who might read this and think I mean them: it’s national but of an in-house nature, no I haven’t mentioned it anywhere, no it’s not Lascaux or West Sussex Writers or Steyning Festival.

Readwave and Scribd: places for writers & readers

Readwave is a well-presented site for writers-looking-for-readers and readers looking for something bite-sized to read. Anyone can post a piece of flash (800 words – longer pieces have to be broken up) and your stats are clocked up next to each entry. While I’m not sure that a ‘read’ always means what it says, you do at least know someone looked and that your treasured bit of prose isn’t all on its lonesome any more. Upload is a simple copy/paste process with boxes for title and short description, and a place to put tags.

There is a limited range of images available as headers which are rather nice but for variety and relevance, you might want to source your own. Copyright-free of course, or keeping it in-house, something you chased up on Photoshop.

Scribd is an option for longer pieces which are uploaded as documents . If you want an attractive image to accompany the piece, you must incorporate this in your document and experiment with positioning so that it looks good on-screen. Again, there are stats which tell you not only about ‘reads’ but also whether or not your piece has been embedded in someone’s site. Documents can be downloaded so it’s probably important to copyright your document before posting. Scribd hosts a much wider range of documents – everything from how-to manuals through scientific reports to previews of whole books – and you can set up collections.

So – every little helps when it comes to outlets, doesn’t it? Here’s my Readwave page and this is my little Scribd niche. Pop over and say hello, I’ll have the kettle on.

Writing well and coathangers

You’ll recognise all those descriptions of how easy it is to write – ‘stare at the page until your eyes bleed’, that kind of thing – and they work for writers because we have been there. But what about the people who can’t? How do you describe the process in a way that puts them in your space? And what about really understanding it ourselves so that we can be more efficient about our own writing process? Bleeding eyes is not a good marker for success.

"Well, the well whent down to hell"

Yesterday, struggling first to get ‘out of the room’ as it were, because someone was coming later to fix the dryer and I couldn’t focus, I was suddenly hauled back into the room by a man wanting me to sign for next door’s parcel. It was like being on the end of a bungee – not that I’ve ever been there you understand but I’ve seen what happens – springing back into the real world from the deep pit of my imaginary one and with no time to even drop an anchor.

And there was the image: my writing process involves sitting in automatic mode above ground while my imagination climbs down a long, long ladder into a deep, deep well. Unfortunately, it has a rope around its waist and this rope is attached to the door bell, the calendar, the dog, the radio; any and all of which can drag my precious thinking back up and out into the daylight without warning. There is no opportunity to put my short term memory buffer into freeze frame, no pause button, and no instant replay. It’s like getting the mental bends and it can derail a whole train of unformed thought. Imagine the wreckage!

Of course, I can go back down once the interruption has been dealt with, but not only is the original impetus lost, the only way down is via the ladder – a long slow process made worse if there is further anticipated interruption on the cards. So my imagination hangs there half way down, stepping back and forth like a mantis and getting nowhere at all. Up to now, I’ve needed so much time around the descent and ascent that even the thought of interruption makes arriving at the bottom of the well less likely.

But when I do get down there, instead of an homunculean replication of blank paper, there is a pile of coat-hangers. Wire ones – plain and simple and empty. There’s also an empty clothes rail which I slowly populate with these little moveable structures upon which I will later hang detail. Unlike Stephen King who reportedly prunes his first drafts, I build on mine. The rail and the hangers are the skeleton of the story; they’re the elements of it and I often have no real idea of what they will be before I begin.  Once I have them, I can add the colours and textures, shift them around to manipulate time, layer them, mix cardigans with posh frocks and lace with denim, then stand back to see how it all looks. Sometimes I throw the whole dressing-up box at the rail, other times I’m aiming for minimalist chic so the favourite old boots and scarves are packed away back in the repository.

For me, there’s nothing like conceptualising something to enable better management and I find visualisation is invaluable. Now that I have this in mind, I can be more confident about my process and less swayed by the advice of others to ‘do it’ this way or that. I reckon I might also become better at using smaller tracts of time – getting down into the well more quickly and having more control over the return to the surface. I think I will be pulling out the ladder, cutting the rope, and installing a lift.

And now for the imagery, a clear vindication of my brief engagement with Fine Art:

mental well 1coathangers 1coathangers 4

‘Dance to the Wild Ice’

‘When Izzy’s eyelids got burned off, she had to watch all the time without blinking – apart from the frog-lick that slides across side-to-side, but you can see through that so there’s no escape and she’s been watching since Jinty started making the dance. ‘ In Lancaster university’s 2013 anthology of MA creative writing. Contributors are part time and distance students. ‘Dance to the Wild Ice’ is set in the same world as ‘All the Birthdays‘ and it’s on P5. Go on, unsettle yourself!

Car boot giveaway – genuine articles, no tat, honest madam!


I’m having a clear-out. Like my wardrobe, my short stories’ cupboard is stuffed with last season’s pieces which don’t match or have odd bits dangling off the hems. I’ll be starting my MA in October and it seems likely that the process begun with the Open University courses in 2009 and 2010 will re-frame my writing, how I think of it, and how I want it to appear. Not that I’m cringing about the stories that are already out in the wild (and still getting hits, thank you very much, opportunist passers-by!). I’m beyond embarrassment, having worked in the NHS for over 40 years so that reports I wrote way way back still emerge occasionally and get quoted by younger clinicians (they’re all younger these days) who don’t quite twig that they’re quoting me to me. And wouldn’t it be insulting to the editors/publishers who chose those pieces to associate with their journal or magazine? So no, no regrets. Past work is what it is and if we move on, we build on those achievements.


My clear-out is not about dumping a load of old tat – although you might think some or even all of it is – and saying ‘that’ll do, I’m moving on’. It’s about separating what you might call my untutored work from what I hope will be something different, more confident, and built on an education in writing that I have never had. All my experience with education has been that it is about understanding principles, and not dogmatic training in some canon of technique. I’m hoping this course will be the same so that I can use the rules the way artists and musicians use tools. If I want to paint with a piece of potato on a stick or use a washboard as a percussion instrument, who’s to say that is wrong? Like etiquette, when you know the rules, you can break them to achieve an effect. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. I am also very aware of the Emperor’s New Clothes trap, where the prestigious get away with off-loading cynical tripe on people who know enough to be impressed but not enough to challenge them for fear of appearing dim. Art, music, writing, are all ultimately subjective experiences but I know it is possible to appreciate something as ‘good’ without actually liking it, and to know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘popular’.


So I think things might change a bit, and I want to put out last season’s items in little baskets out front while I re-stock the shop with new pieces; probably not designer, much more idiosyncratic than that I hope, but better crafted and with fewer loose threads. In the meantime, I will be taking out, washing, mending, dyeing, and generally making good the old stock. Short stories will appear here, longer ones on This Personal Space (where I hope to be joined by other Brit writers in due course), until my inner head pixies have woven up a storm of new material and given me permission to let it loose.


Now, can I interest you in this cheeky little home-knit – only one left?


‘….As You Wave Me Goodbye’

1948I don’t like being miserable. For a start, it peels at least 20 points off my IQ, and at my age, that’s too significant to ignore. Second, it makes creative thinking well nigh impossible. It closes up the essential gaps between those bubbling, spontaneous irregularities that sit in my unconscious, and the conveyor belt of conscious delivery. Third, it makes my face look like a smacked arse, and frankly, I prefer it less baggy and more crinkled, when the crinkles are herded into place by an irrepressible urge to giggle.

But today I am royally stuffed. My father died last week. One of my cats died this morning. His brother is on the blink (same age, different disease), and will have to be despatched soon. I have toothache. Does it get much better?

There are people who need me to be detached and sensible. The inland revenue who need to know my dad should no longer be considered for tax purposes; the pensions agency who have to stop paying him, and start paying a bit extra to my mother; and the bank who need to know that he isn’t a partner in the joint account any more. That the joint account will not be administered by my mother, whose dementia has left her in an equilibrium of detachment about the whole process, is a further complicating factor, and there is more to do in that regard.

The organisation I work for – Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, a part of the National Health Service – has been more than tolerant. I’d like to think it is a combination of empathy and recognition of the commitment most NHS employees show, often working several hours a week unpaid to the benefit of patients. But it probably isn’t. It is more likely a reflection of the profound understanding of how far events of this kind can throw people who, otherwise, seem to sail through adversity, untouched. Most of them will not have experienced this, which makes their understanding all the more remarkable. I did not ‘understand’ it two years ago when one of my team lost his mother to major illness, without warning. I hope I was as undemanding at the time he needed his head and heart needed to be elsewhere.

But there are joys. The bringing-together of old friends and family members who had been ‘once removed’ and are now less so. The wonderful accommodation of the care home whose owner seems to know everyone who lives there, and which provided hospice standard care without even having registration for nursing. The re-discovery of the big band music that was the heart beat to my parents’ romance in the 1940s. These elements, fundamental and at the core of what matters to all of us, will be the centre piece of our goodbyes, when we make them later in October. Music, love, friendship, care – all real and not manufactured or legislated for. Not scripted or rehearsed. Not for show, but for real. We will plant a tree and wrap it in twinkling lights while we sing along with Vera Lynn to ‘I’ll Be Seeing You‘, and a few of us shuffle out a boogie to Ken Macintosh’s Big Band. Maybe more than the lights on the tree will be twinkling as we leave at the end of that day.

People who deserve thanks: Burlington Care, Marie Curie Nurses, the medical and nursing team and social workers in Driffield.

car in street 1948

Winterbourne abuse scandal

Writing is writing, right? Someone in ‘Good Will Hunting’ said that, if you can do it, you should, on behalf of all those who can’t. Well this link to my other blog, my other life, is my writerly way of speaking for those who can’t. Others have done the same. Journalists have made erudite comment. The BBC gave us the material. But we all knew it was happening, somewhere in our souls, our collective psyche. We knew that we could not always trust humans to act with humanity, or decency, or even just plain neglectfully. We knew that some would see an opportunity for self aggrandisement, satisfaction, ego inflation. But as long as there were systems in place to inspect and regulate, it was not our business.

Well, maybe it is our business. Maybe, since we pay the regulators and the professionals and the carers, we have not just a right but a duty to take a look from time to time. To poke our real-world noses into systems and say that we don’t care what boxes are ticked, this doesn’t smell right. Maybe we should all make friends with our local care homes, nursing homes, and community hostels and offer some home-baked perspective and reality.

The #Scrapslush campaign


Image via Wikipedia

I already knew this, I can’t say I didn’t, so why then do I feel  disquiet at the notion of the ‘slush pile’? It’s not the fact of being in a queue or of waiting for an evaluation of suitability, those are regular experiences in my world. It isn’t even the element of subjectivity, the lack of control, or the length of time invested in the wait because these too are familiar in matters such as applications for research funding.

In both circumstances, there are rules to be followed; this many words or characters, this kind of remit, and that configuration of topicality and market. Most publishers give a time scale beyond which you are free to enquire if you have had no feedback. All funding streams do the same although feedback now is largely automatic. Many of these also have a filtering system which determines whether or not the study is ‘in scope’ so you know quite soon if your proposal will be going to the full selection panel.

So it isn’t uncertainty, the waiting, or the fact that you can’t submit the same thing anywhere else at the same time. It’s the terminology – ‘slush‘. Slush is the semi fluid detritus that encumbers progress, messes up your boots, and trails muck into your house. How on earth has it come to represent the hours of painstaking work put in by people who are rarely paid, and may not be paid even if hauled out of this freezing mash, and who send in their product in good faith?

In a world where language and meaning are critical and communication is the primary aim, what, exactly, is ‘slush’ meant to tell us? It doesn’t sound respectful, it does sound casual, contemptuous, dismissive and derogatory and I am at a loss to see how that can be right.

I have been organising a professional conference and invited submissions for oral presentations. When they came in, they went to a scrutiny panel where we decided which would be accepted and which not. They did not go into a slush pile. For me, it doesn’t matter how many submissions, entries, or pieces of flash fiction someone receives and has to review or how scrupulous that process is, the language of contempt should have no place. Change, when it is just one word, is cheap. I vote for a language of respect, I vote for change.

Twitter #scrapslush

In the post today..

Creative writing class-fine arts center (40269...

Image via Wikipedia

..a large, brown, cardboard package containing letters, CDs, a study guide, a study calendar, a TMA form (a what?!), and a Serious Looking Book. My Open University Creative Writing course is about to kick off.

So what was it about signing those papers, ticking the box marked yes and sending off a fat-ish cheque made them think I meant it?!