Saturday, January 21, 2023

Five years on: Progress

 For something like five years I've been writing the next book in the Grimhilderness series. I've put it away, taken it out again, abandoned it, rescued it, and so on. I've had long stretches when I did nothing at all on it. 

It hasn't helped that my usual collaborator didn't like the basic idea of the book from the start, and consequently I haven't had her ideas and editorial overview for the first time since we worked together on Grimhilda! (the musical version) back in 2010-12. I'm having to do it all on my own. 

This has had its challenges, but has also allowed to me to change my mind about the direction and shape and point of view more than once. And find the best way of telling the story. 

In spite of that I had decided to give up on the project altogether last year. Sheer discouragement with what seemed to be a blank wall, and the lack of support meant I was having to find all the motivation myself. 

And then something made me drag the well and truly unfinished draft out again. It was a kind of annoyance that I'd done so much work on it and it still couldn't be brought to birth. It was a sense that I had to trust my own instincts on this one and do it anyway, even if my usual collaborator didn't like the idea. In the more distant past I'd written a good deal of at least three novels and never completed them for one reason or another, and I felt I didn't want another 'dead' one in my life.

Plus, I now have a stage musical (script and music) and four books under my belt. There was no need to regard myself as a writer who couldn't finish work. I knew I could. So, I re-read through the draft again, made more notes, did a kind of summary of each chapter and who's in it and where it takes place and much more, re-read the various outline notes I'd made to help me see where things were heading, and how I needed to bring those about. I wrote several new chapters. (This is another kids' book, so the chapters aren't long - usually around 1600-1800 words - but this is still an achievement.)

In spite of all this I had to keep on fighting to move forward, and still  have to. I look at these new chapters and think how thin and unexciting they are. But they're merely the first draft in each case. I need to remember  that the first time I tried to write the scene for Grimhilda! (the musical version) in which the toys had discussions about sending Toby off to get his parents, it was pretty awful. But two characters appeared who hadn't turned up before, and with them, and the rest of the material, it was the starting point for what was eventually an excellent scene in the show. 

My habit is to tidy up new chapters as I go along. It's helpful to get me up and running for the next day's writing. These somewhat skeletal chapters will come right in subsequent sortings-out. I've now finished the first draft, and I know how it all comes out. It's now a matter of going back and building these skinny chapters up, not just to make them interesting, but to make them fit the whole scheme of things.  It’s difficult to create much suspense when you’re not yet sure how the next stage of the book, or even the climax, will work. But once you've made your way through once, you can see the lack of tension more easily - and fix it.

Many chapters written for the previous book, The Disenchanted Wizard, got dumped completely. It’s the way I work (and I suspect a lot of writers work in a similar way) and it means that ultimately I get to the right way of telling the story. And to a book that has life. But it isn't speedy...!

I'd love to be able to sit down and write an outline without much previous thought, as some writers claim they do. And then I think of P G Wodehouse and how as he grew older he wrote longer and longer 'outlines' for his books - up to 400 pages in some cases. I can't start a book from nothing -Wodehouse could in his early days, but to keep the quality up he found he had to think the more complex plots through much more thoroughly. 

I have to get to know who the characters are, what sort of things they say and do, where the story takes place and what happens in it. And a lot of that is only discoverable by writing a draft. Just making notes doesn't cut it. Certainly there are an increasing number of notes as time goes on, and the amount of material written for the current book will exceed the final length of the book by thousands of words. Already there are two bunches of chapters that were dumped early on in the process, because they were right when the book was going in one direction, but no use when characters developed and changed and the person whom the story was really about became clear. 

Perseverance and determination. Nick Arvin, the author of Mad Boy, wrote in a tweet late last year: Writing a novel is like mowing a lawn with dull scissors while blindfolded and guided by the whispered promptings of a drunken Keebler* elf.  That's probably close enough to the truth. 

* Keebler is a biscuit (cookie) company in the US. The elves have been a part of their TV advertising for decades. 

Monday, July 04, 2022

Bringing the reader up to speed

One of my niggles that turns up again and again in cop shows on TV - the CSI type of thing - is when the detectives stand around in their office and spout exposition. I don't mean one of them telling the others what's happened, but four or more of them each telling each other what they already know. They're only doing this so the viewer knows as well.  

Character A knows exactly how much to say before character B takes over. Character B then gracefully gives in to character C who somehow knows which bit of information to supply before character D finishes the thing off. Occasionally they swap this approach around: BDCA, or the like. But it's not as if they're discussing it. Pity the poor actors trying to make this look remotely realistic.

Of course, we're not talking about real life here, but we are talking about drama. And how odd it is to find TV scriptwriters reverting to this type of exposition-giving. It was dealt the death blow in the theatre after audiences got tired of too many butlers and maids coming on stage in the first scene and cheerfully telling each other - and the audience - everything they needed to know.

Why this approach has come back into fashion in these cop dramas on TV I don't know, but it seems like lazy writing to me. Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, talks about how exposition can be dull in a movie if you don't mix it with some action. He talks about the 'Pope in the swimming pool' - a scene in which exposition is given while the Pope is having his daily swim. The audience listens to the expository material while wondering about the fact of the Pope being in a bathing suit, or their surprise at there being a swimming pool in the Vatican in the first place. The scene gives exposition while there's visual action - even if it's mainly swimming. In Hellboy, a good deal of exposition takes place during a World War II battle. In other words, a visual event is going on while we're picking up what the story is about. 

It's necessary in novels too. No one wants to wade through a couple of characters bringing the reader up to date in an opening chapter. Inventiveness is needed. 

In my children's fantasy, The Disenchanted Wizard, a good amount of background information was given while the characters raced up the stairs and along the corridors of a mental hospital, all the while keeping an eye out for staff who might catch them being where they shouldn't be. In my current WIP, I have a helicopter playing a noisy and increasingly dangerous part as one character tells the heroine what she needs to know. They're in increasing danger of being wiped out of the sky by this very solid and noisy machine. 

Exposition can be fed to the reader in small doses over two or three chapters. If you need to bring in larger chunks of it, give the scene another element, something that keeps the reader's mind on its toes. The reader wants to know the background to the story, but will be more involved if it has to engage with other (preferably relevant) things at the same time. 

Photo courtesy of - one of the few sites that still offers free images that are free.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Odd English Words

 I've always loved odd words, and English is not only full of them now, but always has been. Sadly, a lot of the really fun-sounding words have gone into the mists of time. I used to get a regular email from World Wide Words, which the writer and etymologist, Michael Quinion, produced. Week after week, he and hundreds of his readers would add to our knowledge of the language by discussing new and old and crazy English words. Quinion no longer produces the regular emails/columns, but they're all still online here, are searchable, and fascinating to read. If you love words!

I'd like to keep the ball rolling a little by tweeting some of these words regularly under the hashtag #oddEnglishwords, and I'll reproduce the tweets here. 

16th March, 2022:

Though not a cow I have horns; Though not an ass I carry a pack-saddle; And wherever I go I leave silver behind me. The answer to this old English riddle is a hodmandod, a bumpy word we've replaced with the more prosaic 'snail.'

17th March, 2022: 

Next time a reporter tells us someone has been severely beaten in a street incident, perhaps they could use the phrase 'the victim was mammocked-up' instead.
Maybe the hospital emergency dept could adopt it too...

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Dictating a computer

For some time now I've been typing up old handwritten notebooks onto the computer so that I can have a digital record of them, and clear out some more stuff from the house. These were mostly notes about my ongoing work of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, a process that not only doesn't happen as soon as you become a believer but goes on until the day you die - and maybe into eternity. Who knows?

There were also other notes amongst the spiritual stuff; sometimes these supplement material in my other journals, and sometimes they repeat the same material in a different way. 

Recently, as a result of reading an email from Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I decided to save my hands a little and try and dictate the handwritten notes into the computer. I had two options: Windows Speech Recognition, which came with my computer, or Voice Typing in Google Docs. 

The Windows version produced text that was barely recognizable as what I'd dictated, and I gave up on that fairly quickly. Google does a much better job, and I'd say it gets more than 95% of the text right first time. It's the other 5% that's a bit of an issue. 

You know when you ask your phone to find something on Google, it will usually only get anything complicated right if you speak clearly, and perhaps a little slower than normal. The same applies here: go too fast, and you'll wind up with some interesting results. This means that you'll have to tidy up the text before you can copy and paste it to Word. It's still faster than typing it, but there are certain peculiarities that I can't seem to conquer. Here's are some of them. 

When I say the word, Psalm, all sorts of words appear: song, some, sound, Somme (as in the battlefield). So far Google and I can't get an agreement on this one. 

It thinks my wife Celia is actually Siri. Which seems strange, since this isn't an Apple computer. When I say the word, Dad, which I often do, since I address quite a few of the entries in these notebooks to my Heavenly Father, it often appears as Dead

Some of the quirks might be the result of my accent, a New Zealand one. I don't have a strong NZ accent, and I've lived in England and so acquired a cleaner English sound at one point, but Google always thinks I'm saying and when I say in, and vice versa: in for and. It also has a tendency to catch the word yet as it. Plainly my improved NZ accent isn't improved enough. 

Not all the errors are misinterpretations of what I'm saying. It likes to capitalize random words. I couldn't figure out why, but I wondered if it picked up certain phrases as being the names of songs, and so capitalized them as though I was mentioning the song in the middle of my sentence. While it's good at making sense of some grammatical issues, it's not so good at making sense of things it just plain doesn't understand. 

It's also is a bit hazy about capitals at the beginning of sentences. These often go missing for no good reason. 

Punctuation is a bit of a problem too. Full stops and commas, in general, are okay. Saying new line will create a new paragraph. Even semi-colon works more often than not. But colon usually appears in the text as Colin, or something similar, while the programme can have off days with comma, turning it into all manner of things: gonna, comedy, colour! I've given up trying to introduce brackets; sometimes the closing bracket will work, but not the opening one. And as far as I can tell, there's no way to tell it to put quote marks around dialogue, which means it would be a bit painful writing a novel in this way. 

It likes to introduce numbers into the text. So far the word too has never appeared (though to makes it). Too is always rendered as 2. Sometimes for appears as 4. 

As you can see, there's always a bit of cleaning up to do after it's typed out your dictation. Still, this is easier than typing up old notebooks of hastily-written paragraphs. 

But if the errors are frustrating, they can also be inventive, and sometimes hilarious. 

Womb for room was a bit of a surprise, but definitely quirky were: dressed tickly for drastically, and metre fur for metaphor. 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Re-reading A Suitable Boy

After nearly three decades I'm re-reading A Suitable Boy, that vast (1500 pages almost) and detailed book of life in India not long after the Partition by the British. 

It's full of stories, all interconnected, and of people from all walks of life. In the following quote, a politician, L N Argawal, has just been questioned in Parliament about a the recent shooting of several Muslim rioters: a mob of some thousand were planning to attack the foundations of a new Hindu temple that was being built right next door to a Muslim mosque. (The mosque itself had been built on the site of a Hindu temple some centuries before.) 

With typical political-speak, Argawal manages to answer very little, particularly to a Muslim female politician who is fired up about what's happened. A little later, he speaks to one of his staff:

'...a good man will not make a good politician. Just think - if you had to do a number of outrageous things, would you want the public to forget them or remember them?'
Clearly the answer was intended to be 'Forget them,' and this was the MLA's response.
'As quickly as possible?' asked L. N. Argawal.
'As quickly as possible, Minister Sahib.'
'Then the answer,' said L N Argawal, 'if you have a number of outrageous things to do is to do them simultaneously. People will scatter their complaints, not concentrate them.' When the dust settles, at least two or three out of five battles will by yours. And the public has a short memory. As for the firing in Chowk, and those dead rioters, it will all be stale news in a week.'
The MLA looked doubtful, but nodded in agreement. (page 278) 

This may seem an obvious enough piece of politicking, but it's very relevant to the state of New Zealand politics at the moment: behind all the ongoing stuff about Covid that our Prime Minister spouts each day and which seems to have all her attention, have been a number of other Bills and changes to the life of New Zealanders, some of them snuck in under the radar almost. The idea of doing enough outrageous things to dissipate the attention of the voters seems to be enacted on an almost daily basis in this country. 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Applying the Word

Dale Ralph Davis is one of my most read commentators, whether it's in his series stretching from Judges to Kings, or in his writings on the Psalms, or his books on other matters. I've probably read each of his books that I own two or three times. 

I was going back through an old diary this morning, and found this quotation from his commentary on 2 Kings, The Power and the Fury, page 205. As always, Davis is able to find ways to apply God's Word to our contemporary situation:

We might call ourselves evangelicals and yet there is little zeal after personal piety, little effort to teach and indoctrinate our families, not much passion to bear personal or public witness - or to raise our voice against unbelief in our church denomination. We don’t see why righteousness must be rigorous or godliness aggressive.

This is so true of my own personal Christian behaviour, and no doubt of many others who claim to follow Jesus Christ, at least in the Western world. We live in a world full of stuff, full of distraction and full of things that call us away from our centre. Yet God has placed us in this part of the world. He doesn't expect us to succumb to its lifestyle, but to make our lifestyle distinctive in the midst of it. 

Father God, help us to change, to be 'holy as You are holy.' 

Follow the science?

Next time we hear 'follow the science' or its like, it might be worth thinking about this statement:

"Science is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in the certainties it reaches but in radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance. This awareness allows us to keep questioning our knowledge and thus to continue learning. Therefore the scientific quest for knowledge is not nourished by certainty, it is nourished by a lack of certainty."
Carlo Rovelli, in the Introduction to Anaximander.
(Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer who has worked in Italy, the United States and, since 2000, in France. He works mainly in the field of quantum gravity and is a founder of loop quantum gravity theory. He has also worked in the history and philosophy of science.)

Photo: Jamie Stoker

Friday, November 26, 2021

The Law of Human Nature

This is another post of quotes from books I've read recently. These two occur early in C S Lewis' Mere Christianity, which I've certainly read a couple of times, if not more. It isn't always an easy book, and you wonder, when the first sections were broadcast as talks, how the listeners were able to keep up. Plainly they did, and the enthusiasm for the talks was such that they were very quickly published in the form of three separate pamphlets, and then into a single book. This book remains one of the top-selling Christian books of all time, and has been instrumental in changing the lives of many a reader. 

The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe there need not be anything but the facts. Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, and that may be the whole story.* But men behave in a certain way and that is not the whole story, for all the time you know that they ought to behave differently.

Notice the following point. Anyone studying Man from the outside as we study electricity or cabbages, not knowing our language and consequently not able to get any inside knowledge from us, but merely observing what we did, would never get the slightest evidence that we had this moral law. How could he? for his observations would only show what we did, and the moral law is about what we ought to do. In the same way, if there were anything above or behind the observed facts in the case of stones or the weather, we, by studying them from outside, could never hope to discover it.

A little later he says:

Do not think I am going faster than I really am. I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know—because after all the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions. But, of course, it need not be very like a mind, still less like a person. In the next chapter we shall see if we can find out anything more about it. But one word of warning. There has been a great deal of soft soap talked about God for the last hundred years. That is not what I am offering. You can cut all that out.

I love that last sentence! Imagine hearing that while you were listening to the broadcast; it would make you sit up suddenly. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The commonsense of ordinary people

A few weeks back I finished reading Jason Riley's biography of Thomas Sowell, entitled
Maverick. It's a great book, and full of quotable things that are especially relevant to our current times. I'm going to go back through my Kindle highlights over the next period of time, and add some of the highlights to this blog. Here's the first:

His early struggles to make a life for himself meant “daily contact with people who were neither well-educated nor particularly genteel, but who had practical wisdom far beyond what I had,” he recalls. “It gave me a lasting respect for the common sense of ordinary people, a factor routinely ignored by the intellectuals among whom I would later make my career. This was a blind spot in much of their social analysis which I did not have to contend with.”

I know some fine academics, people who are attuned to commonsense of ordinary people. But of course, we all know and hear of academics who are not! 

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Finding ideas

As someone who writes day in and day out, I sometimes have to stop relying on the muse and resort to a more pragmatic approach to idea-finding. One possibility is to work through the 10 tips in Howard Scott’s Finding article ideas without leaving your desk.  Mr Scott listed these 10 tips way back in a 1993 Writers Magazine, and I wrote them down for a rainless day.

First, he says, ask: What if? What if I did such and such? Hmm. There used to be a columnist in New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times who wrote just such an article each week. However, he actually did the things he wrote about, setting - or having others set - often absurd challenges which he then turned into a column. But since Scott talks of finding ideas without leaving the desk, I think we can put that suggestion aside.

The second approach is to consider your latest rants. Here's this week's.  Is it surprising that our society is becoming more violent when abortion is considered 'safe' as long as the mother is okay - even though the safety of the person within is violated?

Too complex for a short blog post.

Observe an object, says Mr Scott, or a process. Don't just observe; think about it.

Well, I've sat here observing my computer screen for several minutes while my wife and son debate the rules of draughts behind me. Gritting my teeth and turning my ears off hasn't helped. The whole point of this exercise is to assist me, not frustrate me.

Next. Read news stories; pause over something that interests; what further questions or reactions? Hmm. A cellist in a European orchestra due to play Peter and the Wolf quits her job because she feels wolves are being discriminated against in the story.

This ranks alongside the ill-considered removal of a Pinocchio mural from a children's hospital wall. Adults' screwed-up notions being foisted on children who think political correctness has something to do with keeping your elbows off the table. (Whoops, this sounds more like a rant.)

Mr Scott next suggests I should find a new angle on an old article. I have enough trouble trying to find an angle on most of the ideas I do have without going through the process twice over.

I once wrote myself an enthusiastic maxim. Every idea has two outlets. Sadly, my brain has found the effort of forever conceiving twins quite unsustainable.

Next on the list. Reverse the popular notion - what if the opposite were the norm?

This is rather like lateral-thinking Edward de Bono's creative notion of using the word 'po' when you

Edward de Bono

make a statement that's norm's opposite.  'Po - planes fly upside down.' In Mr de Bono's books this approach always works - within minutes. My lips say 'Po,' however, and my brain says, 'Pooh.'

Talking of Mr de Bono, have you noticed that as time went on all his books said the same thing? The only difference was they got longer.

Back to Mr Scott. Use your friend's experiences, he says. Though I have tried this, I think it's a good way to have no friends from whom to glean experiences, eventually. One of our friends, for instance, complained that the only time I mentioned her family was in relation to toilets.

On to the next.

Recycle old ideas, says Mr Scott. This is certainly very ecological, but I'm not sure if people want to hear my thoughts on slaters (or wood lice) again, even if I approach them from a different angle.  (Say, upside down.)

Mr Scott gets desperate by this time and recommends for number nine: Try to come up with an answer to a silly question. Hmm, what about: Why are some people so masochistic they try and write a blog post a day? Is that question silly enough?

And finally, he says, think of something you're curious about and ask questions. Okay…

What does it mean to poke mollock? Does anything rhyme with orange, or month? Why isn't there a word in the English language for the back of the knee?  Is there a word in any language for the back of the knee?

Well, well, these idea-inducing tips work after all.

This piece was originally written for the now defunct site, Triond, around 2007/8, at a time when I was 
writing blog posts much more frequently. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

100 things to do...

Dave Freeman, the man who wrote the book, 100 Things to Do Before You Die, died after completing only around half of the list.  Ironically, he died not while doing one of the many adventurous things he wrote about, but at home, after falling and hitting his head.    

This book, and all the imitations of it, from 500 CDs You Must OwnBefore You Die, (what happens then?) to 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, all assume a long life, as well as plenty of money and spare time. 

For people who don’t regard death as the end of everything, such lists might not be so relevant, but for people who believe this life is all there is, then perhaps these lists gain importance. Regrettably, making collections of escapades or movies or music is never going to be completely satisfying. You’re always going to be worrying about the things that aren’t on the list. And whether, like Freeman, you’ll actually make it to the end of your inventory. 

And it also depends on whether you can afford to contemplate starting any one of these lists in the first place. For most of the world’s population, managing to get to a recent movie is an achievement, hearing good music is a privilege, and travelling to places you want to go (rather than just places you can afford) is a luxury.   

In the movie, The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson challenges Morgan Freeman to live out the dreams he’s written on his bucket list – the list you make before you kick the bucket. But Freeman could never afford to do some of the things he’s listed, and it’s only because Nicholson is a multi-millionaire that they can manage to set off at all.    

There’s some hint in the movie that a certain degree of realism needs to come into achieving things on a bucket list. A certain degree: the two characters have been through cancer treatment but appear to suffer few ill-effects from their scampering around the world. (That is, until both of them die at the end of the movie.) 

But apart from health, there’s the difficulty of up and leaving family, or jobs, or responsibilities. The people who make these lists often seem to have a casual attitude towards the more stable aspects of life 

I think most of us could come up with a list that would be far more satisfying (and far cheaper) than the 100 Things/Die type of list, if we thought about it.     

For example, a list with just one item in it: One God to get to know before you die.  

Or a slightly longer but still manageable list: 3...5...7 family members to make up with before you die.

Or a list that takes a bit of stepping out of the comfort zone: 95 homeless people in my town to help before you die. 

These may not at first seem to be exciting and adventurous.  But I’m sure you’ll get a lot more long-term satisfaction out of achieving them.


Image by aga2rk from Pixabay 

This piece first appeared on the now defunct site, Triond, in 2008