Saturday, October 20, 2018

Testing the new technique

Vassar Millar

A couple of posts ago I wrote about experimenting with using the initial letters of a piece I wanted to memorize. The initial letters act as a kind of code for reminding you how the words run in the piece you’re learning.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with the results, but I felt I might have done the system a bit of an injustice, so I tried a different piece this morning – a poem: Vassar Millar’s Morning Person, which is about the Creation.

Some years back I had some problems with the muscles in my right leg, and now in the mornings, I exercise my legs while doing my memorizing. This morning, I started by reading the poem over and over as I exercised. Normally I just bowl on in and begin memorizing from the word go.

This time I first got the feel of the piece as I read and re-read it - it’s fifteen lines long, so not huge - and saw how things fitted together, and where there were internal rhymes and so on. It’s a very energetic poem, which helps in the learning, though it doesn’t have an obvious metre to it.

When I’d finished the leg exercises and the readings, I sat down and coded the poem into the initial letters. Working from these, I soon discovered that while some things had stuck fairly easily, others hadn’t; a quick reference back to the words helped. I also wrote the poem out, by hand, in full. 

To my surprise, after several attempts I was speaking the poem without errors – for the most part. One or two lines or phrases, as is always the case, kept zipping off and leaving me, but I wasn’t under pressure to have it memorized instantly.

The end result, however, was that after about half an hour, I had the thing under my belt. This is definitely interesting. And quite unusual for me. I’ll keep reviewing the poem during the day, and see what the state of things are tomorrow.

One other thing that helped, I believe, is that unlike most mornings lately, there were no distractions from other people in the house. And being a Saturday morning I didn’t have to rush to get anything else done.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Working with Psalm 119

Back in March 2013 I mentioned that I was (yet again) beginning to learn Psalm 119, that largest of all the Psalms. In it the same theme is worked over time and again - making it extremely difficult to get your head around which line belongs where.

During 2014 this was almost the only thing I tried to memorise, and I got it under my belt completely. But of course, as soon as I left it alone, it would disintegrate, and all my hard work seemed to be for nothing. 176 verses of two lines apiece down the drain, it seemed.

I'd tried on my first effort at learning this Psalm to link up the verse number with an image, and the image was supposed to help me remember what the verse was. It kind of worked, but I didn't put the effort in to retain what I'd learned, although for a few weeks there it was a bit of a party trick being able to recall any random verse just from the number.

When it came to my attempt in 2014, I didn't start with much of a plan, which was a bit foolish. However, I soon noticed that there was a key word in the beginning of each of the first three stanza (each stanza has eight verses) that linked up to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th letters of the alphabet: B, C, D. (Just in case you've forgotten what they are!)

That gave me an idea. If I could at least remember how each stanza started, I'd have some way of keeping track of where I was in the Psalm. But the fourth stanza didn't have any relevant word in the first line that began with E. It did have the word cleaves (my soul cleaves to the dust). This registered in my head with one of Henry the Eighth's wives, Anne of Cleaves, and so Anne found herself as a signpost in the series.

But to add random names to the stanzas would be to add another complication which I could do without. So while Anne stayed for E, I chose a name beginning with F for the next one, the name of someone I knew. I did this with every subsequent stanza. Friends and relatives became signposts throughout.

Learning the eight two-line verses within each stanza was another issue again, which I'll write about another time. But using people's names as signposts, alphabetically, gave me an additional benefit. It showed me how I might keep track in my head of all the other poems and sections of Scripture I'd learned over the years. Because I'd learned them randomly, there was no order to them.

So I made a list of the memorized pieces, and linked a person's name to each one, in alphabetical order. Yes, I had to learn who belonged to what, and it took regular revision, but the list is now intact (most days). I'm now reaching the end of the fourth run through the alphabet, and have to remember people's names for 98 pieces. (It was a bit of a trick finding names beginning with X and Z and so on.)  Some still catch me out at times, but overall this method is working.

By the way, on my last revision of Psalm 119, it was intact...

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Trying a new memory technique

In my last post I talked about a nonfiction book idea that I'm now pursuing instead of the children's fantasy I'd been writing. It's going to be focused around how we memorize text, such as poetry, chapters of the Bible, playscripts and more. In this post, and future ones, I'll be exploring some of the ideas that will go into the book. 

I’ve been memorizing poetry and Scripture for several decades now, and am always interested in hearing about alternative methods of memorizing.

Recently I came across an idea for the first time which was touted as being a great way of learning text really quickly. The idea isn’t new; in fact I’ve just found in a Facebook discussion on memorization that an acting friend told me he'd been using it for years.

This is how it goes:

You read through a particular speech a few times, getting to know something of the words, but not memorizing it.. Then you sit and write down the initial letters of each word, along with any punctuation. With poetry, it’s good to stick to the layout of the poem as well.

These initial letters become a kind of code. It's surprising how quickly you can read through these letters and remember the text you’re learning.

That’s good, and seemingly some people with better memories than me can be word perfect the next day when they have to deliver a speech, using this method alone. 

Or so it appears.

I tried it for the first time on Psalm 63, which happened to be the next item I wanted to learn.

I broke the text down into four sections and only worked on one section each day, over four days. The first day it all seemed very easy, and I could recite back the words with relative ease. But before the day was out, I’d pretty much forgotten what I’d learned. Away from the code, I had smatterings of it, but there were gaps and I wasn’t sure exactly what some words were or how they fitted together. 

A little discouraged, I came back to the first section the next morning, and, using the initial letters I’d written out again, found I could quickly remember the lines. So I carried on with the second section.

Next morning, the first section – without using the initial letters – was kind of there, but not really learned. The second was mostly missing. And so it went on, until I’d worked through all four sections.

By the time I'd got through all four sections I found I had to start working on the lines in my usual way: checking for similar letters in a phrase, for words that rhymed with each other (wings, sings and clings all turned up within two lines), for connections to other pieces I’d learned (my Auntie Joyce is a usual reminder of rejoice and has been used when learning another Psalm), for words that remind me of something else, and so on. All long-established techniques.

The thing was still not really sticking…

Lying in bed on the sixth day (or thereabouts) I decided to use the technique known variously as the Memory Palace or the Mind Palace or the Place of Loci. All of them basically mean using real places that you know well in real life and letting them be the link to getting you from A to B in the piece.

I chose the road outside our house, leading to my neighbour’s fence (where my generous neighbours, in imagination, were standing), upstairs in my house where I was lying in a bed, and then to my other neighbour’s place, where relationships between us aren’t so good. 

These were starting points, but I needed to add in other things: the motor scooter shed in our drive, a hand mower being lifted over the fence, eating a marrow without cutting it, someone wielding a
A substantial marrow
sword, and a King and Auntie Joyce holding hands.

Now the thing started to be more fluent. And now, a few days later, it’s at the point where I’m much more likely to remember it than I was using the initial letter code on its own.

So the point is, I think, that if you want to learn something and retain it, you have to use a variety of means to keep it alive in your head.

I’ll talk about something called retrieval in my next post. This is another essential element to retaining things that have been learned.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Death of a story

Some sad news...for me, if not for the few readers who actually read my kids' books. I'm abandoning book four in the Grimhilderness series. Something's just not happening, in spite of all my efforts, and I can't even blame procrastination anymore.

My 'sounding board' person stated about my idea of bringing back characters from the previous three books: 'I think it's fraught with pitfalls.' Not a bad sentence in itself, and maybe worth using somewhere.

Though that pronounced sentence sounds like a death knell in itself, the life had already gone out of this book. I'm putting it in the famous bottom drawer until one of my grandchildren discovers it and says, 'I wonder why granddad didn't pursue this extraordinarily good idea.'

Except they won't find in the bottom drawer, because there is no bottom drawer on the computer. Might have to invent a folder named that. Maybe I should just call it Atlantis, instead of 'Bottom Drawer.'

Meanwhile, on a more positive front, I've decided to pursue a nonfiction idea I've toyed with for some time. I've written about this subject on and off since I first started writing articles, and it's been a topic that's intrigued me for decades.

I'm not going to spill the beans about the idea in this blog post, but keep an eye out in future ones, where I'll start to discuss different facets of what I want to work on, and explore the ideas in short bursts.

An Afterthought


Friday, September 14, 2018

Write Fast (er)

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My last two posts have both basically been about procrastination. It's a word you'll find a lot if you search this blog.

When procrastination (a word I apparently can no longer type at the first attempt which may indicate that I'm trying to avoid it in yet another way) is the modus operandi then you go looking for all sorts of ways of overcoming it, in a kind of back door fashion.

Perhaps I should really, really try outlining. Reads books on outlining.

Perhaps I need to write and write around all sorts of ideas and see where they take me. Lots of ideas and an inability to put them in any order. (Though this is more helpful than the first approach, and does at least let the creative side of the brain do some work.)

Perhaps I need to rewrite what I've already rewritten at least once (or twice). Yup. Just forestalls any progress in the section that I haven't written at all.

I should introduce a dragon!! Wow, great idea, and the dragon takes off and takes over all the other ideas and still doesn't seem to have an actual role to play.

Wait! Here's a thought. I could just get on and write. Phew! Radical. While trying to work through the Save the Cat beats approach (and running into a huge blank spot in Act II) I noted that Jessica Brody, who has written Save the Cat! Writes a Novel says that she can't even look at sorting out the STC beats until she's actually got to know who her characters are and what they're doing. And the only way she can do this is by writing an awful first draft. (A 'shitty' first draft, as Anne Lamott always calls it.)

Kristen Lamb in a post called Is your story stuck? says basically the same thing. She cries "STOP!" and adds, "I am a HUGE fan of fast-drafting because then we simply don’t have time to over think every step we’ve made."

She suggests three ways to move forward out of the quicksand.
1. Refuse the urge to edit. 
2. Learn to Fast Draft
3. Kill someone

I'm great at the ignoring the first suggestion, am able to do the second (although not as quickly as some writers) and haven't tried the third - in this book. Nasty, horrible people who are harming my hero/heroine have been killed off in the previous three books. And it's probable it will happen to the current antagonist. But killing off someone random? That takes a bit of guts. 
Meanwhile, here I am blogging. Instead of writing. Fast - or slowly. Procrastination is beginning to set in again (it's past time for lunch; you've got to go and see a sick uncle; the dog needs a wash - no wait, I've already done that today).
Time to wind this post up and make some progress...

Thursday, September 06, 2018


Stuck with a big hole in my plot/structure/whatever. I have a vague idea what should happen, but how everybody gets to that point is another issue.

So what happens when I strike this kind of a point? I read books on writing. Does that help? Oh, yes, it helps the writer who wrote the book on writing by providing him with a royalty, and it helps me to procrastinate, and it helps me to think about how other books are structured and why their plots work so wonderfully...

What it doesn't do is help me write my book. And the actual reason for that is laziness. I'm not under pressure to get the book done, and I've got three books under my belt already in the same genre. Why do I need to write a fourth?

Well, I don't. The world won't miss it. But having done a draft that covered possibly two-thirds of the book, and having done another shorter draft before that, and now having done another chunk of draft that takes the book from a different point of view - that's another approach to avoiding getting on with what is the problem in the book - it's time to get on and do some actual work.

Sitting down and working out the problems is too hard. Thankfully I have plenty of mentors in this, some of them very famous. I'm not going to mention names because it would only embarrass them...even the ones that are dead. But there have been any number of writers who know that they should get on and do the work and don't, or didn't...

Anyway, I've got other things on my plate at the moment and they're bound to be more important, and...

That last sentence reminds me of a tweet I've kept in my files: One of my New Year resolutions is to always finish what I

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Save the Fantastic Cat

I've been re-reading Blake Snyder's excellent, Save the Cat, as well as reading for the first time his third book, Save the Cat! Strikes Back. They're extremely encouraging for writers, whether screenwriters or novelists, or storytellers of any kind. They give a means to work out structure far more satisfactorily than any other 'system' I've come across, and they offer ways to go back over your work and find flaws, and work out how to fix them.

My mode of operation, however, tends to be that I have to initially write something of the story before I can figure out who the characters are and what they're up to. I can't just take an idea and fill up Blake's 15 beats without that.

In fact, as I've no doubt mentioned before, I've been writing a fourth book in the Grimhilderness series, and it's been going very sluggishly. Procrastination is part of the problem; life getting in the way is another problem; and lack of where to go after a certain point is another. But I do have a bunch of characters who are alive in my head, and I have a number of situations, and a general sense of what the overall story is.

This is more than enough to get started on the 15 beats.

Except that I immediately began to discover that things just weren't going to work, once I started setting my story as it stood alongside Blake's beats. Not because I couldn't match certain things up, but because the hero turned out to be passive, and there was no great reason for him to go on any journey anyway. In fact, if  he had any sense he'd go into hiding. Hardly the work of a hero. So back to the drawing board.

I re-watched J K Rowling's film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling's world is so full of stuff by now that she can reference all sorts of things and fans will pick up on them. (I'm not quite so good at keeping such detail in my head as those sorts of fans.) I thought about her story in terms of Save the Cat.

It's interesting to ask: who is the hero? Whose journey are we going on?

Because plainly we have a quartet of lead characters, and the most important of them, Newt Scamander, doesn't go on any great journey at all: he is what he is, unlike Harry Potter, who goes on an immense journey over seven books. Is there a catalyst moment for Newt? I suppose you could find one, and you could find some of the other things that heroes are supposed to have in stories. But Newt is already fully-formed at the beginning of the movie; he doesn't need to change in any great way. Nothing much troubles him - except when there's a threat to his beasts. Otherwise he has a resource for almost every situation and doesn't really need others to help him much.

Which means that the hero who changes is someone else. Snyder mentions this in Strikes Back: the character who isn't quite the main character but who goes through the process of being stuck to having something unstick him to being thrown into a different world to being changed and finally coming back to what he loves but with a different viewpoint.

This is plainly Jacob Kowalski. He starts off on the back foot with no hopes (turned down by the most wonderfully po-faced Bank Manager you've ever seen), with the only life he can envisage being stuck in a canning factory - even though he's served his country in WWI. He is affected by a catalyst - the meeting with Newt and the accidental swapping of their bags. And even though he's the American equivalent of a Muggle, he's thrust in the magical world, and sees all kinds of things he never knew existed. He faces fearsome creatures and learns to love them, and even copes with the horrific rhinoceros-like creature that nearly stomps him to death. And in the end, even though he loses his ability to see magic at work, he gets his much-desired bakery shop and it's a roaring success. And at the very end, Queenie turns up there, and it looks as though his life may change even further.

But besides Jacob, another one of the quartet goes through a considerable journey too, and that's Tina, the kind of magical detective. She's down on her luck as well, having made some mistake in her job, and is reduced to investigating without the proper authority, being put down by her bosses (again) and generally not being able to understand Newt's nonchalant approach to life.

But the things that change Jacob's life change hers too, and she's forced to accept Newt and work with him, stepping into a different kind of world as well, where she has to see that Newt is far ahead of her in the play, and even, in the end, will rescue her from her past when she's threatened with death.

I don't know whether Rowling wrote the script as we see it portrayed in the movie, or whether she wrote the outline and dialogue. However it was done, it's a considerable feat, juggling all the elements that are in it. And if you can keep up with it all, it's likely you'll find Snyder's 15 beats being worked through in their proper order and giving the film a solid underpinning.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Kindle highlights on Goodreads

I'm just reading Penny Sansevieri's book, 5-Minute Book Marketing for Authors. I'd thought I'd read it before, but according to the record I keep of books I've read, I haven't. (Still with me?)

Maybe I started it and then it got interrupted by some other book coming along the chute, such as her other title, How to Sell Books on Amazon by the Truckload, which was really good. Anyway, this 5-Minute book is helpful, and has some good ideas in it.

I was reading it at a rehearsal for Don Giovanni, last night, in a spare moment when I wasn't required to play the piano for the singers, and, because she talks in the first chapter about Goodreads, a site I've been a member on for some years now, I decided to download the Goodreads app onto my phone. (I was reading the Kindle version of the book on there.)

To my surprise, I discovered that all my Kindle highlights are available on Goodreads, something that had never registered before. It's not as though they're hard to find, either. That's very interesting. I already keep copies of them on Evernote, because it's helpful to be able to search them, but having them at hand on my phone is also useful.

The format for the highlights is better than the one on Amazon itself where there's only one page and things stretch out for miles. Here each individual book is listed, and you can access the notes and highlights more readily.

I guess this change happened when Amazon joined forces with Goodreads, but I plainly missed noticing it at the time. Well, there you go, you catch up eventually!

Incidentally, one day I'll learn how to spell Ms Sansevieri's name correctly. She has one of those names where I always get the syllables mixed up...

Thursday, July 12, 2018


I work with a Chilean man, helping him with his English pronunciation and reading. Today we came across an article in a magazine from 2015 in which the author, Jani Patokallio, wrote about introducing the word p-book (or pbook, or pBook, to use his own variation on spelling possibilities).

He had apparently used this word back in 2000 when ebooks (or e-books, or eBooks) were coming into their own. I think he had hopes that the word would take off as a means of distinguishing printed books from digital ones. He has tracked it since, through a website that I think may have gone the way of the dodo. It wasn't one I recognised.

In the early 2000s the word barely made a dent in the language, though there's been cited more in more recent years. (As in around 20 citations per annum; not really that many.) It seems that people have opted to assume that book means printed book, and e-book/ebook/eBook (does anyone use this latter version?) stands for the digital model.

English language users tend towards ease of use rather than adding things where they don't need them. And since book has stood us in good stead for several hundred years, adding a p in front of it just seems like excess. Mr Patokallio's article uses a number of words not used in everyday English - such as prognostication and neologism - so he's plainly a lover of interesting words, and possibly had high hopes that pbook would take off. 

It certainly turns up in online dictionaries, though none of the ones I looked at gave any indications as to the word's origins. I'm not sure whether Mr Patokallio actually made the word up; it sounded from the article as though he may have, but my student and I were too involved in getting through the article with pronunciations intact to worry about finer detail.

You can find some references to pbook (which seems to be the way the word is being spelt) in a few places on Google. None of them are particularly recent, and I can't say I've noticed the word being used regularly anywhere.

pBooks, eBooks, & dBooks: why we are hooked on books and bookness doesn't take us very far in the why we should use pbook as opposed to book, but it's an interesting piece all the same.
Manning Publications talk about registering your pbook here.  I think they're an Indian publishing house.
ebook vs pbooks: a lesson in value, like the first article, is more about the value of books in general, whereas The Buying Conundrum: pbook or ebook? talks more about format.

All of these articles are 2014 or earlier, which rather indicates to me that pbook isn't really taking off. I'd be happy to be informed otherwise!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Real life impinging on fiction

Over the last few months I've been typing up old diaries from the 1990s - there were 700 pages of them, and I've only typed up just over 200 so far.

In the entry I copied today I was remembering an event that happened way back in 1954, when my grandfather suddenly died one Saturday. I'm guessing he had a heart attack, although I don't know this, since I was only nine at the time.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents, because she and my father had split up. He stayed behind in Australia while we came back to the family home in New Zealand.

My grandfather was a real father to me; I'd never really known my own father, as we'd left Australia when I was three, and I think he was often away playing at Chess Championships anyway.

Courtesy Pixabay
It struck me today that my three children's fantasies have some odd connections to these mothers and fathers and grandparents.

The mother and father in Grimhilda! have become remote and have little time for their one and only child, Toby. (In the original opera version of Grimhilda! the mother was much the same sort of character, but the father barely appeared at all. He made a shadowy entrance for literally a few seconds, said one brief line, and was never seen again.)

There's no sign of the mother in The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret until right at the end, though she's talked about early in the piece. Billy, the hero of the story, lives at home with his Dad.

In The Disenchanted Wizard Della also lives alone with her father. (There was to have been a mother, but she got cut out in an early draft.)

Now I don't have anything against mothers: my own mother was great, and in a kind of reversal, lived with us and our children for around 21 years, until she died. So I'm not sure why the mothers are missing for the most part in these stories.

The two very different fathers are perhaps fictional attempts to present the sort of father who might have been useful to me if he'd stuck around, though neither of them is the heroic type.

But what's more interesting is the older male character who appears in two of the three books. In the first he actually is Billy's grandfather, and though he's a nothing like my own grandfather, he does seem more outgoing than Billy's own dad, and plays a bigger part in the story.

Della, on the other hand, doesn't have any actual grandfather, but she has an older man who becomes a kind of grandfather to her. This is Mr Crinch, who when he first appears seems to have lost his marbles. This isn't entirely the case, but without him, Della and her cousin, Harold, would never make it back home again.

We all draw on real people to put into our stories, sometimes consciously, but more often unconsciously. While I don't necessarily think of members of my family when I'm writing my books (or even when I read them after they're completed), it seems that these people make their way into the stories anyway, without my noticing it. Certainly some of the emotions I experienced as a result of having known them have forced their way into the books. Hopefully they resonate with my readers.