Blog in 12 2011.
This time of year’s all about starting new books while you sit in your favourite armchair in front of the fire (okay, maybe a bit twee). So to help you find a good one, we’ve done a book round-up of the reads we think teach us something about writing. A few of us at The Writer have recommended our favourite recently(ish) published books just in time for Christmas. So here they are.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Our Ed says, ‘It’s a lesson in caring. It’s a book about life, crafted with painstaking thought and tender love. It shows that the deeper you think, the more you know your subject and the more power your words will have.’
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Abby says, ‘It’s an exercise in writing as many four letter words and graphic sex scenes as possible, whilst still making you feel sympathy for every single character. Tsiolkas channels the narrative of each chapter through a different person so you get acquainted with the intimate (and often dirty) mindsets of everyone involved in the story. But, no sooner are you on the side of the narrator than he jolts you into another psyche altogether.’
On Writing by Stephen King has been recommended by two of us.
Rosh is ‘mostly indifferent about Stephen King – I’ve never read his fiction. But this book really got me thinking about how I write – whether that’s a short story (which is how he started) or other things. ‘One of the main things I took away was to write, write, write and keep writing. Sounds obvious, but his obsessive dedication to writing is what helped him become one of the best-selling authors in the history of time.’
And Emma says, ‘Stephen King stole my heart a long time ago – and probably did something horrible with it, knowing him. But this book’s a cross between a memoir and a writing how-to. Begrudgingly praised by critics (being prolific and popular is a sin in the literary world), it’s a fascinating read, giving insights into King’s writing process, his slightly lopsided psyche and how writing saved his life after he was run over and almost killed in 1999.’
Metamaus by Art Spiegelman
Jan’s suggestion’s for the comic book lovers out there, ‘In the comic books Maus and Maus II, Spiegelman grappled with how his parents survived the holocaust, and how he couldn’t relate to his father. (For good measure, there were Jewish mice, Nazi cats and Polish pigs.) They were brilliant and so is this 25th anniversary making-of extravaganza. With humour, humility and intellect Spiegelman covers his influences, his research and his unease about success. A great lesson in how words and pictures combine to make comics a unique and underrated art form.’
My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘me’?) by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines
Ana’s staying true to her job title (editor) and recommends this book because, ‘It’s the best grammar book I’ve come across. That makes it sound like I’ve read masses of grammar books – I haven’t. But I’ve skimmed plenty, and this is one of the few that made me stop skimming and start reading. It’s easy to get around, clearly written and just plain helpful.’
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
Rosie thinks by ‘writing in simple, understandable language, Faulks brings the reader into the story. He writes from the point of view of each character and puts in lots of description. This helped me paint the picture and really get absorbed into the book.’
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Miranda says, ‘This book makes you feel like you occupy the mind of Thomas Cromwell as Mantel charts his career from humble beginnings to Henry VIII’s right hand man. It’s on an epic scale – from the making of Britain to the flux of Tudor society. And yet it’s personal, the characters are all three dimensional. ‘You see the emotional destruction caused by Henry’s decision to divorce Catherine. You feel Cromwell’s pain at losing his wife and children to the plague. You learn that Cromwell loved Wolsey and wore his ring after his death. A critic said, “After reading this book I’m suspicious that Hilary Mantel is Thomas Cromwell.” This book teaches you how history should be written but I suspect no one else could achieve close to this.’
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Miranda also says ‘I know this isn’t a recently published one, but I was astounded when I put this two-brick-sized book down after devouring it voraciously – first that I'd read it so quickly and second that I'd enjoyed it so much. This book could teach you a lot about writing. It's probably one of the best plots ever as it touches on the big themes of love and fidelity, revenge and forgiveness, youth and age, and the human condition. But it also shows you how to keep a fresh and fast pace (despite its humungous size) which helps add layers to the story. And it shows you how to make a story relevant to the times without blinding you with history. It should be law to know this book.’
And for the hungriest bookshelves:
If you’ve gnawed through those already, we’d recommend The Exploding Boy and other tiny tales by our very own Nick Parker. The Guardian liked it enough to review it. Then you can have a bit of John Simmons’ Room 121: A Masterclass in writing and communication in business. And to make it a nice round number of three, Neil Taylor’s Brilliant Business Writing will do the trick. Okay, that’s it, no more plugs. Have a great Christmas and see you in the New Year.
Yes indeed. To counterbalance the naming and shaming of plain English day, we thought we’d round up some of the year’s best examples of writing at work. So here we give you The Writer’s inaugural Fine Print Awards, for people who’ve aspired to something greater than merely ‘plain’. Our list is partial and subjective. There was no call for submissions; we didn’t convene a judging panel. It’s based largely on what’s stuck in our heads over the last year. Which in itself is some kind of test, really.
The Top Words from the Top Award
Goes to Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who in February of this year wrote his now famous ‘burning platform’ memo to everyone at Nokia. The BBC called it ‘one of the most combustible and gripping documents ever to emerge from a major corporation’. It was so good in fact that many doubted its authenticity. But it was real. And it rightly went viral. Here’s just a snippet of its urgent, brutally honest tone:
‘Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved? This is what I have been trying to understand… We had a series of misses. We haven't been delivering innovation fast enough. We're not collaborating internally. Nokia, our platform is burning.’
A close runner-up is Warren Buffet, whose New York Times piece ‘Stop Coddling the Super-Rich’ cut through the millions of words about the financial crisis with its frank and direct honesty. All financial institutions currently bleating about ‘restoring trust’ should take note. This is what honesty sounds like:
‘Our leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice”. But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.’
The Poetry in Motion Award
Goes to BBC London Travel Alert. They’ve managed to take a thoroughly unpromising subject and give it a genuine dash of idiosyncrasy: sometimes poetic, sometimes funny, sometimes just plain odd. When we blogged about them earlier in the year, we picked out a few tweets we liked. There have been countless more since. Lovely.
BBCTravelAlert A surfeit of precipitation. Ergo A12 Eastbound between Aldborough Rd & Hainault Road – carriageway is 50% deficient.
BBCTravelAlert The Underground railway isn’t available at Liverpool Street at present whilst the fire alarms therein reverberate.
BBCTravelAlert Her Maj’s Jubilee line is ok now. This means that in fact the entire choob network is running efficiently. Let’s see how long it lasts.
The Giving it Gusto Award
Definitely has to go to discount voucher people Groupon. We love how they’ve made their madly flamboyant, energetic and frankly bonkers style a big part of their identity. (They call fingers ‘cheek slappers’, ‘clapping utensils’, ‘shake traps’ and ‘high-five dispensers’ among other things. And that’s just fingers, for God’s sake.) Some people love it. Others hate it. But in 2011, everybody was talking about it. This list of humour taboos from their writing guidelines shows just how seriously they take it, too. Yes, occasionally they get it staggeringly wrong. But we’ll take their glorious failures over plain and safe any day.
The What’s-in-a-Name Award
Goes to LOCOG for calling the Olympic mascots (OK, they were technically named a few years back, but were really unleashed on the public in November) ‘Wenlock’ and ‘Mandeville’: both names are clever references to Britain’s Olympic heritage, but most of all we liked them because they just sound so unexpected. ‘Like a pair of melancholy detectives from a minor existential comedy’, said our Nick when he blogged about them last month. Sporting names are usually so thrusting and energetic and relentlessly positive.
A close runner up was ‘Movember’ (‘the month formerly known as November’), the name of the fundraising campaign for men’s health – and of course the name of the month when men now grow ridiculous facial hair. Renaming one twelfth of the calendar was a pleasingly audacious move, and the word has already passed into everyday use.
That’s it. Agree? Disagree? Think we’ve missed something noteworthy? Then tweet us (@TheWriter) or leave a comment.
Friday is plain English day. With depressing predictability, the usual Government departments and utilities will be lined up and ridiculed for using jargon and bureaucratic obfuscation.
Fair enough. Lots of it is ridiculous and laughable (and our own Words at Work survey found most of us get wound up by the likes of ‘touch base’ and ‘I’ll socialise that’). But is plain English really the answer? The fact that they’ve been plugging away at it for over 30 years – in which time the stuff they moan about has only proliferated – suggests they’re barking up the wrong tree.
Yes, plain English is better than confusing English; we’d sign up to that (and do, with our clients). But plain English can be – and often is – deathly dull. It gets its point across, but does it persuade you? Does it provoke you? Does it touch you? Does it make you want to take off your shoes and dance down the street in the cool, fresh winter rain? Type ‘plain boring’ into Google and those words appear together on the internet 30 million times.
Part of the problem is that the plain English brigade are natural critics. As well as picking holes, wouldn’t it be great to know who’s doing a good job? Someone should pick out public figures, companies, brands whose language is clever, funny, moving, surprising. Anything but plain, in fact. Cue Nick.
Band names have got more and more cryptic over the years.
The straightforward ones like ‘The Beatles’, ‘The Rolling Stones’ and ‘Crowded House’ have been replaced by a constant wave of bands trying to break the mould and do something different.
I first noticed it when they started using a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’ – ‘Limp Bizkit’ and ‘Boyz II Men’.
Then numbers started popping up – ‘Blink 182’. ‘Zero 7’, ‘M83’, ‘Sonic Boom Six’ and ‘2manydjs’.
Next thing we know they’re getting alliterative – ‘Fat Freddy’s Drop’ and ‘Ben Folds Five’.
Or using a number to represent a letter, as in ‘Deadmau5’.
Now I’m all for bands playing around with the English language; it proves it’s becoming more and more fluid in the ways we use it. The problem is there are always names you’re not really sure how to say. And by giving it a go you risk looking stupid.
Maybe the bands are doing it to sort the avid listeners from the dabblers. Or to encourage that awkward moment where you mispronounce a name when you’re talking to a fan. Next thing you know, you’re given the ‘you said it wrong so we’re officially not friends’ look.
I got that for my attempts at Lynyrd Skynyrd (Lie-nerd Sky-nerd, oops), Alexisonfire (Alex is on fire is wrong) and SBTRKT (it’s subtract, obviously).
So, are today’s band names representing a new wave of language lovers or are they just being smartarses?