The worst writer in the world?


Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

So begins Amanda McKittrick Ros’s novel, Delina DelaneyI found this quote on the Goodreads site with the tag wtf-does-this-mean. And no, I haven’t a clue either.

Now, literary fashion has changed a great deal since Ros published the book in 1898. If he were writing Bleak House (1853) today, I’m not sure even Charles Dickens would have dared begin with a discussion of the grisly London weather, wonderful though that passage is, complete with mentions of fog, mud, umbrellas and a Megalosaurus. Imagine the tattoo of red pen from a modern editor.

‘Never open a story with the weather’ is one piece of writing advice often given. As is the need to trim your prose of flabby, unnecessary words  – edit, edit, edit is our current mantra – and make your writing as clear as a mountain stream to your reader.

None of which seem to have been a priority to Ros.

The writer was famed for her circumlocutory language. When she wrote in her debut novel, Irene Iddesleigh,

When on the eve of glory, whilst brooding over the prospects of a bright and happy future, whilst meditating upon the risky right of justice, there we remain, wanderers on the cloudy surface of mental woe, disappointment and danger, inhabitants of the grim sphere of anticipated imagery, partakers of the poisonous dregs of concocted injustice. Yet such is life

it probably never occurred to her that she could have said –

Why is it we always feel most fed up when something good’s about to happen?

More was … more as far as Amanda was concerned.

She may have been a self-published teacher from County Down, but that didn’t stop her from imagining “the million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen” and that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years”. One thing she never lacked was confidence in her own work: she once discussed the Nobel Prize for Literature with her publisher, asking “What think you of this prize? Do you think I should make a ‘dart’ for it?”

Some of her best words she saved for her critics, calling them variously,

“bastard donkey-headed mites”

“clay crabs of corruption”

“auctioneering agents of Satan”

“hogwashing hooligans”

“evil-minded snapshots of spleen”

She had a gift for alliteration if nothing else.

What are we, then, to think of an author who – in her last novel, Helen Huddleson – lumbered most of her characters with a fruit-based name (Lord Raspberry, Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape, Madame Pear)?

Well, I can’t advise any modern writer to ape her writing style and it seems famous authors would support my decision: the literary group The Inklings (which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein) held competitions where the winner was the member who could read from one of her books for longest without laughing.

But I do admire her no nonsense attitude towards critics, the absolute faith she had in her own work and the way she was prepared to defend it.

In these days when most authors are loathe to get into online arguments with readers over snippy critiques or even outright, troll-like oceans of bile, Ros reacted to a poet’s criticism of her debut novel by printing a 20 page rebuttal in her follow up novel.

No shrinking violet, our Amanda.

So if I think she was deluded in her own talents, she had more self-belief than most of us.

And that is definitely something to aspire to.

What do you think of Ros’s verbiage? Do you agree with the critics or do you long for a time when the circumlocutory phrase was en vogue? Are you tired of this demand for tough edits, long for the return of purple prose?


Wednesday Word Tangle: Wackford, Bathsheba, Beguildy: Why a good name is the best gift you can give your protagonist

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Character names are important.

At their most basic they must be credible: probably best not to name a middle-aged accountant living in a suburb of modern day Leeds whose having an affair with his son’s primary school teacher Bumbletuke Humpty-Bump. That may sit well in A Christmas Carol, but it won’t do on the darts team of the Dog and Duck.

At best they’re shorthand, communicating in a few syllables something of the character, a boiled down essence of their personality. I’ve talked about preconceptions on this blog before – it’s okay, we all have them – but they aren’t just confined to the clothes someone wears or their looks: they extend to names too.

If you read a newspaper article about a man called Gary who’d been caught speeding, you’d have a very different chap in mind from one named Sebastian. It doesn’t mean one is more likely to speed than the other, but you wouldn’t expect Sebastian to have been brought up on the local Council Estate – but Gary … possibly.

Rightly or wrongly, we associate certain names with certain types of people.

Ever noticed how many heroes are called Jack? From the dandy charmer Sparrow, through the doom-laden Bauer, to the kick-ass Ryan, when your main protagonist is called Jack you can expect guns, explosions, fist fights and a body count that’s through the roof. Jacks know how to look after themselves.

Today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is not dedicated to your Jacks, your Garys or your Sebastians. But to the more unusual, the peculiar – the downright inventive.

  • From Precious Bane by Mary Webb: Wizard Beguildy, Jancis Beguildy.

The wizard is a con man and a trickster, while his daughter Jancis is attractive in a brainless sort of way, which makes them both ‘beguiling’ – ‘to deceive or trick’ , ‘to charm and fascinate’.

In the Bible, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, was seduced by King David and mother of King Solomon. Did Hardy choose the name intentionally to convey to his Bible-literate readership a little of Bathsheba’s future man trouble? Then there’s Gabriel Oak. Why did Bathsheba not know to marry this guy from the start? He’s half angel, half reliable, deep rooted stock – as English as cream teas and an obsession with the weather. I would’ve been ordering a dress just on learning his name.

  • From the Harry Potter books: J.K. Rowling’s devised some cracking names for her characters, so many it’s hard to choose just a few but …

Albus Dumbledore: ‘dumbledore’ is an English dialect word for a bumblebee – love the name just for that. Then there’s Draco Malfoy: ‘draco’ can mean dragon and Draco was also an Ancient Greek lawgiver with some extreme ideas of justice. A perfect combination for a baddy. Lastly, Severus Snape: his first name sounds like ‘severe’, surname makes me think of snakes and ‘snipe’ (‘to criticise unpleasantly’) something Snape’s very good at.

You can’t have a list of character names without mentioning the king of weird character names.

  • From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge: a dour, Biblical beginning, then a surname that sounds a bit like ‘screw’, which is apt.

‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!’ A Christmas Carol

  • From Nicholas Nickleby: Wackford Squeers – sadistic Yorkshire schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall  who regularly ‘whacks’ his students.

And before you dismiss Dicken’s character names as comical and ridiculous, bear in mind that parents called their kids some very odd names during the Victorian period ‒ Friendless Baxter and One Too Many Gouldstone being but two genuine examples.

  • From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Bilbo Baggins: oh, just because it sounds great, doesn’t it?

I could go on and on but I’m not going to.

What’s your favourite character name? And here’s a challenge for those who fancy having a go. Choose from one of the following and come up with a fitting character name to share with the group:

  • A burglar with a love of horticulture.
  • A cross-dressing policeman.
  • A serial killing teacher… Or share one of your own devising 🙂

What’s in a name? Pseudonyms and why writers use them

Ah, my dear, we can but dream. Image: Pixabay

Ah, my dear, we can but dream.
Image: Pixabay

Have you always had the same name?

For many women reading this, the answer will be a resounding ‘no.’ The same goes for myself – no, I have not always had the entertaining monica ‘Lynn Love’ – cousin to Penelope Pitstop, third cousin twice removed to Pepper Potts, bastard offspring of Linda-black-sheep-of-the-family-no-one-talks-to-her-at-family-get-togethers-Lovelace.

My surname used to be Cuthbert. Lynn Cuthbert. Lynn Love may be a bit of a joke name, but Lynn Cuthbert is an accountant’s name – maybe a quantity surveyor. And before I have legions of quantity surveyors telling me I’m slurring the good work of civil engineering the length and breadth of these fine isles, may I say – first off, what on earth are you doing here on WordPress? Go find your tape measure and calculate something. And second off, there’s nothing wrong with a respectable profession like yours, it’s just not for me – and for heaven’s sake stop being so sensitive about it.

Now, if you’re a writerly cove, you may have dreamt for years of seeing your name on the cover of some beautifully bound, hand-tooled leather hardback. But was it your own name you saw, or a pen name?

There is a long, fine tradition of authors using nom de plumes. The wonderfully titled Samuel Langhorne Clemens most of you will have read as the master of wile and wit, Mark Twain, and most readers will know when they pick up a Richard Bachman novel, they’re really reading the work of Horror King of Kings, Stephen King.

But it seems women are the ones who have run fastest and loosest with the pseudonym.

Understandably for early novelists, when ladies were supposed to spend all day learning how to sing, play respectable musical instruments (perhaps a piano that would show of your finely boned wrists – nothing such as a tuba or a cello that would distend your delicate female body parts) embroidering anything that stayed still long enough for you to set your needle on it, fainting and practising how to die from something decorous, like consumption.

What you really, really weren’t supposed to do was be the daughters of a parson, live in close isolation with other creative, mildly unhinged siblings in the middle of a windswept moor, allowing your suppressed, base natures emerge through torrid tales of mad women chained in attics, obsessive love, domestic violence, ghosts, conflagrations and fallen women.

Is it any wonder Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte used the (rather odd) male pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? If nothing else, they saved the blushes of their father Patrick.

Even today, when it is – you’d think – more acceptable for women to be authors, they still often use their initials rather than those all too-feminine first names. Think of P.D. James, J. K. Rowling, C.J. Lyons, J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts). This is often because they’re writing in a genre which is male dominated, such as thrillers. When J. K. Rowling was on the verge of publishing the first Harry Potter book, her publisher asked if she would mind becoming J. K. instead of Joanne, in case boys were put off reading the adventures of the wizard genius because they were written by a girl. I’m pretty sure the thriller writers would have a similar story to tell about adopting their gender neutral names.

Would I ditch my real name, the name of my other half of twenty five years, the name of my son, to guarantee higher sales?

Too bloody right I would.

Though, if I wrote some throbbing, muscular, brain-splattered, blood-drenched torture-porn action thriller, I don’t think sales would improve by being L.M. Love instead of Lynn.

So, how about a pen name?

Stud Bentley? Kurt Nontweasel? D. B. Turnblatt? Flash Portsabre?

Hmm. I’ll get back to you.

Any suggestions? Have you invented a pen name for yourself? Or are you determined to use your own? If you have already published – pen name or not – any regrets?

Speaking of names, I was wondering if George R. R. Martin’s was an invented reference to one of his literary heroes –pedlar of epic fantasy, orcs, hobbits and golums, oh my! – J. R. R. Tolkein. You know – the R. R. bit?

The answer? No.

GRRM’s full name is George Raymond Richard Martin – so not made up. But, I bet he enjoyed being able to stick those initials in there.