Sunday, 18 December 2016

A Hokey Cokey Christmas

With Christmas just around the corner, we weren’t surprised when Ángel, our Spanish teacher, explained there wouldn’t be another class until after the New Year, but he insisted we still come to the school on the next lesson day. After a few misunderstandings we realised he was inviting us to an end of year party.

Laden with plates of eats and bottles of wine, most of the class made it the following week, but there was a surprise waiting. It wasn’t a party for the ex-pats only, but incorporated his other students as well.

These were Spanish ladies of mature years, none of whom had been able read or write their native language before starting lessons with Ángel.

Under Franco’s rule Almeria was a province very much out of favour. Girls during this period didn’t attend school. The only teachers they had were their parents, many of whom were barely literate themselves. As a result a generation of ladies had reached their retirement age without ever having read so much as a newspaper article. Fortunately the Turre council had decided to put matters right and the ladies were getting lessons in basic literacy.

The party started in the way that mixed language events always do, Spanish on one side of the room and English speakers on the other. There was no shortage of goodwill, but a distinct absence of conversation. Nothing daunted, the Spanish ladies decided a few Christmas carols would help to bridge the language divide and launched into song. It was a lively and catchy tune. We couldn’t understand the verses, but the chorus was easy to pick up.

Then it was our turn. Nods of encouragement made us bold, but it was at that point we realised none of the carols we knew was blessed with an easy to sing chorus. Our Spanish friends did their best, but couldn’t really join in. When we’d finished they started another one in Spanish and again we were able to sing along. Someone came up with the bright idea of writing the words to the Twelve Days of Christmas on the board, but not only could we not remember how many maids were a-milking, we couldn’t translate it either. The result would have had Santa’s elves running for cover. Off-key, out of tune and everyone singing a different part of the song, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

After yet another superb Spanish carol, we felt that British pride was at stake. Then someone suggested the Hokey Cokey. Oh well, what did we have to lose? We put our left arms in and our left arms out, in out, in out, we shook them all about. So did the Spanish ladies who’d leapt to their feet. Smiling and singing along, they enjoyed every second of it.

Jingle Bells followed, but they knew more verses in Spanish than we did in English, so we simply repeated the first verse several times. It didn’t matter; the ice was well and truly broken. We ate, drank and made merry with hardly a word exchanged.

When it was time to leave, our new amigas sang a beautiful song of farewell and then the lights went out. We stood in the dark, not sure whether to grope our way out or wait for the electricity to return. The strains of the Hokey Cokey started up again. No one could see, but I’m certain everyone’s arms went in and out.

So, if you should find yourself in this part of Spain over Christmas, do make sure you know that traditional carol the Hokey Cokey.  The locals do.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Need to signal a flashback? #writetip

Margaret from Exeter is having trouble with the pluperfect (even if she may not realise that’s where the problem lies): I’ve been told my flashbacks are clunky to read because I use too many hads, but if I’m already using the past tense for the main story, how else am I going to show that I’ve gone even further back? Is there another way to show that other than using had?

Let’s look at the definition of pluperfect in English: It denotes an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied, formed by using had and the past participle, as in he had wanted to meet her, but she had already left.

As a flashback shows action completed prior to the time she is writing about using the past tense, this definitely qualifies as a reason to use the pluperfect. So, Margaret is absolutely right in using it, but her friends are also right: overuse can be clunky and distancing to read.

 If we look at this short passage, you’ll see what I mean.

Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He had sat at a corner table of the pub where he had been certain he could not be seen and had waited for over an hour before Janet had appeared. She had been alone when she came in. She had gone straight to the bar. As she had sipped her drink, a man had come in and had stood next to her.

When going into flashback it is important to signal it so that the reader is aware of what is happening, so using the pluperfect in the opening sentence is fine. However, to avoid the clunky feel, you should switch to the simple past tense as soon as possible.

Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He sat at a corner table where he couldn’t be seen and waited for over an hour before Janet appeared. She was alone when she came in and went straight to the bar. As she sipped her drink, a man came in and stood next to her.

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Monday, 6 June 2016

Grammar - narrative vs speech #writetip

Michaela from Huddersfield has sent in an interesting question about using natural sounding speech: I recently had a short story critiqued and the person who commented on my writing said I was making a mistake when I wrote my character was sat at the bar. I don’t see what’s wrong with that – it’s how the character speaks. In fact, he didn’t pick up on almost the same words in dialogue, so I’m now even more confused.

This is a case of narrative versus dialogue grammar usage. In dialogue, we can use all sorts of incorrect grammar, because it is, as you pointed out, how the characters speak. However, in narrative (where no one is speaking) using exactly the same construction would, in many cases, be incorrect.

I’ll use your query term in the following example.

“I don’t know why Jane got so upset. Dan was sat at the bar minding his own business and her mate came on to him. He didn’t start it.”

In the above paragraph, it’s fine to say Dan was sat because it is in direct speech and is in keeping with the speaker’s character.

However, if we change things around a bit, so that we only have narrative, we cannot use the same construction because it is grammatically incorrect. We can only use Dan was sitting or Dan sat.

Dan was sitting at the bar…
Dan sat at the bar…

To summarise: in dialogue you can use incorrect grammar, as long as it is in keeping with the way the character would speak, but in narrative you have to ensure the grammar is correct.

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Thursday, 2 June 2016

Quote/Unquote #writetip

I have posted a letter from one of my regular readers below, but before you move down to it, I hope you won't mind if I take a moment to tell you about one of my books. As most of you know, I write crime as Frances di Plino. The first in the D.I. Paolo Storey crime series, Bad Moon Rising, is on a week-long promotion. Please tell all your family and friends they can download Bad Moon Rising for the ridiculously low price of 99p/99c across all Amazon sites.

Niall from Luton gets confused about quote marks and asked for some advice: I see some people use quote marks like these ‘ ’ and others use the ones that look like this “ ”. How can I find out which ones to use and does it matter?

As you’ve shown in your email, there are two different types of quotation marks: single and double. Double quotation marks are now used less than they were in the past, but some magazines and publishers still favour them over the single marks.

The best way to decide which to use is to check the house style of your target market to see which they prefer. If you’re planning to approach a magazine, finding out which they use is as simple as opening a recent copy and looking at the content.

However, if you are planning to submit a manuscript to a publisher or agent, very often they will have their desired formatting style on the submissions pages of their websites. If the guidelines don’t stipulate one or the other, I would simply use the style with which you feel most comfortable.

Do bear in mind that whichever marks you use for direct speech, you would then use the opposite quotation marks to quote 'speech within speech'.

‘I’m praying Jack hasn’t started drinking again. When he left this morning he said, “I’m going to the supermarket.” That was hours ago and he should have returned by now.’

The double quotation marks show that someone is being quoted word for word. If you use double quotation marks for the main speech, use singles for the ‘speech within speech’.

Other uses for quotation marks:
Idiomatic expressions, for example: He was always referred to as a ‘pain in the neck’. Note that when quotation marks are used in this manner the full stop or comma comes outside the marks, but if quotation marks are used for dialogue the full stop or comma comes inside the marks.

When quoting the title of a magazine article: ‘The Generation Game’ in Spanish Magazine, March 2007.

(The above answer was partly taken from The Writer’s ABC Checklist)

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