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Archive for February, 2014

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write. I took what I thought was a sensible detour and concentrated on teaching for a while, but every career change brought me closer to what I really wanted to do. Today, I make my living writing non-fiction, and I have managed to publish a few poems and stories – although admittedly fewer than I would prefer. However, one thing I have never done is join a writer’s group online or in-person.

I could do so easily enough, if I cared to. A whole industry exists to tell wannabe writers how to write, and many wannabes seem to enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. With a single phone call or email, I could probably wrangle at least an invitation to some sort of writer’s group.

Yet somehow, I never have. Although I have no trouble writing in a crowded coffee shop, for me writing is a solitary activity. By contrast, joining a group is a social activity, and the connection between writing and a writers’ group has never been clear to me. I’m not about to tell somebody else that they shouldn’t join a writers’ group, but the idea simply doesn’t attract me.

I know that I could get plenty of feedback if I did join a group. However, just because someone is a wannabe doesn’t mean that their criticism is worth hearing. The number of people who are useful as first readers is small in any group, and from occasional interactions with wannabes, I see no reason to think they would be an exception.

If anything, I suspect that assorted insecurities would make most members of a writer’s group somewhat worse first readers than the random assortment of friends and relatives I occasionally go to for an opinion now. More often than not, what I would hear is not how to improve a passage, but how the wannabe would write it, and why their suggestion was better than my implementation. If I did find some members of a writers’ group whose opinion was useful to me, I would still have to sit patiently through the criticisms from others that were no help.

More importantly, ever since I encountered a poet’s cafe when I was in high school, I’ve had the shrewd idea that writers’ groups are less about writing than the idea of being a writer. The groups do seem to produce more published writers than any random sampling, but they do appear to be places where people talk about writing more often than they produce a manuscript. Story ideas, hints about finding an agent, overcoming writer’s block, the latest software – the conversation continually circles writing, but only occasionally focuses on it.

Rightly or wrongly, I get the impression that wannabes are unconsciously hoping to find the shortcut that will turn them into writers overnight. Failing that, they want the support of like-minded people to reinforce their fantasy that they are moving closer to becoming writers. Yet at best, having writing ambitions is a hobby that justifies socializing and attending conferences.

This attitude clearly gives them pleasure, and I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong as such with living in the community of wannabe writers. Without any sarcasm, I’m sure that community can be very comforting at times. I just think that the fantasy is always threatening to become more important than having pages to send off for publication

For myself, I don’t have time for most of their activities. I don’t have time to talk about what I’m going to write, because I am too busy researching it, I can’t agonize over writers’ block, because I have deadlines. I suspect, too, that I will learn more about writing analyzing a novel that I admire and trying the techniques I observe that reading yet another article of tips.

Maybe other people have had different experiences of writers’ groups, and find them worthwhile. All I can say is that, for me, they seem too unconnected to writing to be a serious temptation.

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Imagine, if you will, a 19th Century England ruled by James III, popularly known as Good King Jim, and forever bedeviled by the Hanoverian supporters of Bonnie Prince George. It’s a world where wolves have slunk through the Channel tunnel to haunt the landscape, and over in New England a pink whale struggles to save its obsessed pursuer. In South America, Guinevere awaits the return of King Arthur, having foresightedly frozen the lake across which he is supposed to return and taken it with her when she fled the Saxons. Meanwhile, children are disappearing in the north of England, where the mysterious figure of Gold Kingy has declared independence from the south.

If any of this inspired lunacy sounds appealing, you owe it to yourself to look up Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles. Published between 1962 and 2005, the twelve books of The Wolves Chronicles are an example of the kind of children’s fantasies at which the English seem to excel: short, fast-paced, and madcap, and, if anything, even more appealing to adults than children.

The titles alone are enough to be alluring to those with even the shortest DNA sequence for appreciating poetry. Starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, they continue with Black Hearts in Battersea, working their way through titles like Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, and Cold Shoulder Road to conclude in The Witch of Clatteringshaws. But this is hardly surprising, considering that Aiken is also the author of the lines, “Midnight is not a moment / Midnight is a place” – one of the best evocations of mystery and wonder ever written.

Besides all the fantasy elements and sheer poetry, what makes The Wolves Chronicles work so wildly well is Aiken’s Dickensian sense of place and plot. She not only uses plot elements like child labor and the street life of the London poor, but her stories are full of chance encounters with people who turn out to be long-lost sisters or orphan boys who are really the heirs to Dukes, and people thought dead turning up alive and well.

In other hands, this material could be a disaster, but Aiken carries it off with a high-handed disregard for logics or physics. In Aiken’s hands, it seems perfectly normal that plotters against the king might put Westminster Abbey on casters so they can roll it into the Thames during the coronation. Another plot involves a gun aimed at the king from across the Atlantic, but the best part is not the gun itself – which is first mistaken for a telescope or pipeline – but the fact that the local Americans are only made to care about the plot against the English monarch when they learn that the recoil will leave Nantucket adjacent to that den of iniquity called Atlantic City. Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, this is silliness of the highest order, requiring that the writer never reveal that she knows how cracked it all is, and Aiken never lets on that she is anything except primly earnest.

If the series has a fault, it is that its two most frequently occurring characters, Dido and Is Twite, are too similar to one another. However, since both are resourceful and determined, that hardly matters. Besides, if Dido and Is sometimes blur together, there are always a handful of eccentric characters around them to keep things interesting, especially villains like the sinister but musical Pa Twite or the evil governess Miss Sleighcarp and the Hanoverian ambassador the Margrave of Nordmarck.

Currently, about a third of the series is out of print. Fortunately, each novel is self-contained, and Aiken is deft about summarizing what readers need to know about past events in the first few pages, so that having read each book’s predecessors is unnecessary.

Still, the unavailability of some of the titles is regrettable. Although some of the novels are stronger than others, all are masterpieces in miniature, light yet showing what fantasy can be at its finest.

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