Wednesday, July 22, 2020

East is East and West is West


For many years now, I've been memorizing both Scripture and poetry. As with all memorized material, I have to keep revising the pieces in order to retain them, but this is a normal part of the process. Some of the ones I learned longest ago are the most readily accessible, and one of these is Psalm 103, which I set to music way back - probably in the 70s. 

Music helps retention, of course, and though it's harder to learn things that way initially, the words stay in place much more than they do in a piece that has no music accompanying it. Which is why rhythm and rhyme are helpful in memorizing poems. The brain enjoys the feel of swinging along, and of words echoing the same sound.

Psalm 103 is one of my favourite Psalms, full of great lines. Unlike some Psalms it doesn't swing back and forth between reproving the reader and encouraging him or her. It's encouraging from beginning to end. And though it's a Psalm focused on blessing the Lord, we see in line after line how He blesses us.

Here are a few consecutive lines from the Psalm that I particularly love:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth
So great is His lovingkindness to those who fear Him.
As far as the East is from the West,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.



How far is the East from the West? Some humourist might say that they must be next door to each other at some point, but I know that's not what the Psalmist is saying. I've been writing a children's book (for some time now) which partly takes place in The Ends of the Earth. In my mind, As Far as the East is from the West' is a similar sort of place. I'm even thinking of using it at one point in the book..!

Notice that the word 'fear' turns up twice in this extract. (It appears three times in the full Psalm.) For some people this gives the impression that we should go round looking over our shoulder in case we're upsetting God. But it's much more about acknowledging that He's our Creator and is infinitely superior to us in every way. In the Book of Proverbs there's a famous line: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That presents the same sort of idea: understand who's the One with the wisdom, and you'll learn wisdom. Pretend you know everything, and you'll fall flat on your face.

In another Psalm, it says: the fear of the Lord is clean. I take that to mean that it's not the fear of a monster, but of someone who has our best interests at heart.

The translation I've used above is the New American Standard. It's been superseded by a bunch of other translations since it first came out between 1963 and 1971, but because I'm so familiar with it, I greatly prefer it, and much of the Scripture I've learned comes from it.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Blogger, boohai and Puhoi

It's taking a bit of time getting used to Blogger's new format. There are some things I like about it, but as so often with these sorts of changes, things that are most useful get hidden out of the way and take some finding. Such as the way to create a new post. You'll look in vain at the top of the posts page for any indication that you can ever create another post, and then out of the corner of your eye, in the far distant bottom right corner is a plus inside a circle. That's the thing to click on if you want to start something fresh.

It's a bit like telling a friend when they're coming to visit. 'You'll find the back door somewhere round the back,' and leaving them to discover that the back door isn't actually at the back, but out of sight around the side of the house that no visitor would ever make their way to.

We stayed at my cousin's house recently while she was away somewhere else. The back door led off the drive where you parked your car (and was one of those that didn't open normally, but required you to pull it towards you in order to get the lock to work). So it was effectively the front door. 

To reach the actual front door, however, you had to go through a side gate in front of the front side of the house, turn a corner, and only then discover that the front door was well and truly hidden in a very private garden. 

But that's not what I intended to write about today. 

I found myself using the expression ‘It’s up the boohai’ this morning when answering my daughter. It's not something I say often, but it’s a handy way of inferring that something’s completely in a muddle. In this case that the local Council's Dog Registration system seems to have got itself thoroughly discombobulated as a result of Lockdown. 

The implication that something's gone haywire is the way I’ve always used it, and I think it was how my mother used it as well. We’re not alone in doing so: here's Sam Young citing someone who claims that the dictionary definition of being lost or astray isn't the one he's used to:

I recall that my Dad sometimes used the expression "Up the Boohai" to describe poor reasoning or irrational behaviour. He was a WW I vet and he told me that the term was used by the troops to describe some of the officers' decisions, as in "These are the orders but they're all up the boohai." 

Some online dictionaries only give the definition of lost for good, or gone astray. 'Up the Puhoi’ was supposedly the original phrase. Puhoi is a village on the Puhoi River, north of Auckland, where Bohemian immigrants apparently settled. Why you'd get more lost in Puhoi than other places is a bit of a mystery. 



Photo courtesy of HelloAuckland.co.nz

Monday, May 18, 2020

Fighting off the internal critic


When stuck on a book, Anne Lamott writes about letting your characters speak, giving them the opportunity to work their way forward, and even showing you what the climax should be. 
For myself, stuck in the middle of a book that refuses to move forward, I have occasionally in the past used a kind of monologue from various characters to give me some better understanding of their 'thoughts' and 'aspirations.' So it's worth considering what Lamott has to say, since my book has been stuck for some months.

But...

Immediately I sit down to let my characters speak, the You Can’t Do This voice arrives.  I ask, Who are you, and what position do you hold in my writing world that allows you to put your oar in the moment I try to write something on this book?

Okay, well firstly, I’m not one of your characters, so you can’t treat me as though I can be bullied into a plot at your whim. 

The truth is you are one of my characters because you don’t exist outside my head. So sod off before I put you in the reject file.

I’m not one of the characters in your piffling book, the one no one will want to read. Wait, are you saving any of this? I don’t want what I say to be lost.

Good grief. Saved.

Right. Now. Every time you sit down to write, I believe you must go back and re-read the entire draft, you must check your synopsis, and your structure, because if you don’t have a structure there’s no way this book is ever – and I mean ever – going to work, and only then think about moving forward and doing some supposedly productive writing. Just because Anne Lamott mentions authors who start to write from the middle of nowhere and think they can get a book up and running doesn’t mean you can. I’m mean, are you seriously published? Do you think a few sales here and there identify you as a writer? You’re pathetic. I hope you just heard the word I used: pathetic. P...A...T...H...E...

Are you going to rattle on all day like this? I'd like to give my real characters some room to speak.

They’re not going to talk to you. They’re sick to death of being stuck in a so-far-undescribed room, or virtually forgotten since chapter seven, while you say, 
nah I won’t finish this,
yes I will finish this, 
nah I don’t know what to do, 
yes I have an idea, 
nah that doesn’t work
Make up your frigging mind! The characters have had it up to here. They're contracting themselves to other authors because they need a job. They've given up on the so-called author who can’t get his act together.

You’re talking piffle. No one else would have them because they belong in THIS story.

Don’t you believe it. They can go where they like, even if they have to change their looks a little or bend the arc of their character. They’ll get jobs, don’t you worry.

So you’re saying they're good characters?

Good? Nah, they’ve got the ability to do a bit part in someone else’s novel, maybe, but they’re not going to get anything big in a real book that needs characters crammed with personality. They're cardboard copies of whatever first came to your unimaginative mind. You probably think you’ll get away with calling the load of bollocks you’ve got there a ‘shitty first draft’ a la your mate, Anne Lamott, but that’s not cutting any mustard with them. They want something polished and finished, and you’re never, never going to get around to doing anything like that. You wouldn’t even know where the bottle of polish was. Throw your stuff down the toilet and go and do something worth doing. Don’t ask me what because I haven’t a clue, but no doubt there’s some menial task you can do with a piece of paper and a pen…the easy crossword in the morning newspaper, maybe.

Hmm. I still have a couple of heavies sitting around…they've tried out for a role in the second half of the book…

Rubbish! Now you really are making things up. 

That's my job. They’re going to grab you by the elbows, lift you two feet in the ear...air…

See, you couldn’t even remember how to spell air.

And march you off to the dustbin where you belong. I would get them to flush you down the toilet, but I don’t want it blocking up.

You don’t scare me. I'm the only real voice you've got here!

You’re just a voice without a body, without any physical presence  whatsoever, and what's more I don't trust you. So quit your insistence on standing in the way of my getting on with the book. I’ve already wasted ten minutes writing time listening to your rants. And that's only today. 

[Author whistles up the two heavies, who are glad to get something to do earlier in the piece than they'd expected. They oblige the author and remove the anonymous voice which seems to think it rules the writing-landscape. With a couple of cheerful 'Watch 'er, mate' mutters out of the sides of their mouths, they lift the voice off its feet, as recommended, and carry him/her/it babbling to the dustbin.
'Babbling to the dustbin.' The author immediately jots this down in case he wants to use it at a later point, and feels as though the day may not be a total disaster after all.]

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Halving it

When I was doing a Writing Course years ago, I remember being appalled when asked to cut down a short story by half. Impossible! 

But, no, it's not, and the good thing was that it gave me confidence to edit more effectively in the future. No line is ever inviolable, and no word is so perfect that something else can't substitute for it - if you need to chop things back. The great thing about the English language is that you can almost invariably find a synonym for any word. 


I posted the following on Facebook today: 


For years we've been getting the nasal spray Flixonase in a plastic squirter. Simple and not too unenvironmental.
Now the product has morphed into a wide plastic package - the kind you have to use an axe to get into - and most of what's inside the package is air. Not only do these packets take up much more room on the shelf at the pharmacy, but they are a total waste of resources. Neither the packaging nor the container is reusable in any sense.


I attached photos of the package, front and back, including one of the previous models for comparison.


Plenty of room on Facebook, so I could use as many words as I wanted, and play a little with the text. 


But I wanted to put the same thing on Twitter, and of course, even with their doubling of the size of a tweet a couple of years ago, you're still limited in how many characters you can use. 


So I called on my old skills, and produced this:


For years the nasal spray #Flixonase came a simple plastic squirter. Now it's morphed into a wide #plastic package, and most of what's inside is AIR. Not only does it take up more room on the pharmacy shelf, but neither the packaging nor the container is #recyclable in any sense.


Exactly 280 characters!


In the tweet there are 50 words, or 280 characters. In the FB version there are 85 words, and 449 characters.

Yes, of course, a few interesting things have gone - like the bit about the axe - but in general nothing important has been lost. It can sometimes be a struggle to get your text down to an allotted number of words (newspapers are usually the most keen to keep words to a certain fixed figure) but it's doable, and what's more, it's good for your editing skills in general. I've had to review several books over the last few years that looked like they'd never end - a 1000 pages seemed to be the minimum some authors could tell their story in. Except it wasn't. It was indulgence, and the editors at his publishing house should have told them so.


So when it comes to the point where you have to cut that massive tome down that you've been writing for several years, just think: do I want to publish a Facebook version, or a Twitter one? The latter may well help your book reach more readers.



Friday, March 20, 2020

You great wazzock!

We were on holiday recently, and my wife bought me a Code Break puzzle book from the $2.00 shop (it cost $2.50, which seems slightly odd, but maybe altering the name of the shop to the $2.50 Shop wasn't worth the extra fifty cents).

Unusually for a puzzle book, I'd discovered some new words. The compiler obviously didn't like to go for the mundane, so we had SCHMALTZ, GRIPPE and ENCYST in one puzzle. None of those were unfamiliar, but the following three made me check the anagram app on my phone which is usually a pretty reliable source for checking the validity of a word.

These three were: WAZZOCK, MAJOLICA and OSMIUM. Plainly I should know the second and third as even Blogger doesn't think them unusual, but it put a red line under WAZZOCK, which means it thinks it's suspect. Word (the Microsoft programme) on the other hand, seems quite happy with it, although not with its alternative spelling, WASSOCK.

Well, Blogger and Word, it isn't suspicious at all, in either spellings. And it's a useful word which obviously no longer gets the room in most people's vocabulary that it deserves. Know someone who's stupid or annoying? That person is a wazzock.

It may be a newish word. Certainly most dictionaries I could find online seemed to think it had originated in the twentieth century. The Urban Dictionary, on the other hand, a dictionary I don't always find entirely reliable (which may be just that I'm ignorant of a great deal of slang) claims an interesting history for it.

On the basis of the Urban Dictionary's explanation WAZZOCK is the sort of word that I'd have expected to find in David Crystal's The Disappearing Dictionary. This isn't a thriller about a book disappearing from someone's library, but about many English words - many delightful ones - that are no longer used, except, in some cases, in remote parts of England where local dialects are still more common.

Here are a bunch just to give you some examples:

abundation, aizam-jazam, awvish, bemoil, brackle,cank, craichy, cramble, giddling, hask, illify, knivy, lozzuck, nesh, poweration, queechy, ronkish, scorrick, splute, work-brittle (which doesn't mean work-shy).

To give you an idea of how useful some of these words are, here are the meanings of four of them.

aizam-jazam, in spite of it looking foreign, and difficult to get your teeth around, merely means equitable, fair and square. It might be a word to face up to your lawyer with when you think he or she has been overcharging. Or you could just save your teeth and call them a wazzock.

bemoil just means covered in mud, and seems like a word we could resurrect for rugby players. 'They were so bemoiled, half the pitch went with them into the dressing room.')

queechy means sickly, ailing, feeble. This one could be useful in describing someone with Coronavirus.
'Doctor, I think I've been hit by this pandemic.'
'Yes, you do look a bit queechy.'

And last, scorrick means a fragment. Crystal gives a wonderful sentence in dialect using the word: ‘Ah thowt ther would ha bin summat left, bud ther waant a scorrick.’ [Translated: I thought there would be some left, but there wasn't a scorrick.]

A plate in the Majolica style
[courtesy Getty Images]
If this word sounds familiar, it may be because in some parts of England it's pronounced sceerick, or skeerick (this is the spelling I'm more familiar with, here in New Zealand). And it has exactly the same meaning.

Time to resurrect some of these wonderful words, I think!

Oh, BTW, Majolica [often pronounced Maiolica] is a type of pottery in which an earthenware clay body (usually a red earthenware) is covered with an opaque white glaze (traditionally a lead glaze including tin), then painted with stains or glazes and fired.

And Osmium (from Greek ὀσμή osme, "smell") is a chemical element with the symbol Os and atomic number 76. It is a hard, brittle, bluish-white transition metal in the platinum group that is found as a trace element in alloys, mostly in platinum ores.

So now you know...













Vex and trip



This column first appeared in Column 8, 8th September, 1993

My self-imposed moratorium on a certain word rhyming with ‘vex’ must come to an end. The reason? The overwhelming emphasis this week on the word rhyming with ‘vex,’ and a companion word rhyming with ‘trip.’

Can I ask: If you were the mother of seven and came into a load of money after your husband died, what would you spend it on? Most mothers-of-seven would probably answer: ‘On getting the bills paid. Or buying the kids (or grandchildren) some extra clothes. Or putting aside for their future, especially their education.’

I don’t think most mothers-of-seven would decide that forming a male strip act and taking it on tour was a top priority.

Dreams are dreams, okay, and we all have some secret ambitions we’d like to fulfil. But this must be classed as one out of the box.

Male strippers are certainly in vogue. Due to the overwhelming financial (though hardly artistic) success of a play on the subject of male strippers, our local professional theatre is now presenting A Sequel.

We’re warned in the ads that some scenes ‘may offend, intimidate or excite audience members.’ We’re told in the review that people who’d find it difficult going to see a proper strip show can feel more relaxed about going to see a play on the subject.

The puzzle is why do people want to go and see other people strip at all?

For years we’ve heard the cry, ‘It’s degrading for women to strip.’ How come it isn’t for men? Or are we back to that piece of  nonsense proposed by the video censors: men are less easily demeaned than women?

Perhaps because men are the ‘oppressors’ and have all the ‘power,’ (fat chance!) they’re taking the opportunity to oppress their victims still further – by stripping in front of them.

The Listener presented a cover story about a male and a female stripper. The man said something significant: He felt he still had to keep one part of himself for himself – that is, he never exposes himself completely. But why expose himself at all?

I know work is difficult to get, and I can see that certain unemployed members of the community might decide that this was the road to success, but what’s the cost in the long term?

A certain newspaper now has columns advertising – euphemistically – Adult Entertainment. Strippers appear increasingly amongst the ads for ‘escorts,’ a number of which I’m sure really mean ‘prostitutes.’

There are two unsavoury aspects to all this. First, the ads sometimes appear alongside the church notices, a matter of ‘inappropriate juxtaposition.’ No doubt someone will point out that Jesus spent a good deal of His time ministering to prostitutes; therefore the neighbourliness of the ads is appropriate. However, I don’t think Jesus expected that prostitutes, once they’d seen His light, would continue in their occupation.

Secondly, classified ads must ‘conform to the newspaper’s standards.’ Am I wrong in thinking those standards have broadened their broadmindedness more than a little?

That’s the classifieds. Amongst the entertainment ads is one for a certain lady now touring the country. She’s been a centrefold in Penthouse, Hustler, and so on. She’s an X-rated star of porn movies. Need I say more?

I thought, as a nation, we were already pretty much obsessed by that subject rhyming with ‘vex.’ The trouble with obsessions is that they’re never satisfied.

In the murkier depths of our beings, we’d possibly all find lascivious corners that would leer at what ought to be other people’s privacy. (I mean, of course, something quite different to normal married privacies.) But what value is there in yielding to these murky depths?

When it comes to certain words rhyming with ‘vex’ and ‘trip,’ are we made to be creatures that wallow, or creatures that soar?

**********

Update, 20.03.20
Interesting that this was written four years before The Full Monty appeared. Certainly this is an entertaining and well-made movie, though there always seemed to me to be a disconnect between putting on a strip show (and once only) and the idea that these men had lost their sense of human value. The argument didn’t quite work. Where would they go after the show was put on? Hardly into full-time strip work, you’d think? And would it be likely to give them employment in another profession?



Saturday, February 15, 2020

Moving house and writing up my life



It's been nearly two months since I last posted here - once upon a time I posted most days, sometimes more than once a day.

There's been a lot going on in our household - selling our house, for one thing, and trying to find somewhere else to live for another. At the moment we're 'boarding' with my daughter - who bought our house. So in a sense, things have hardly changed at all. She and her partner and foster boys had already been living in the house a year or more when she bought it, due to circumstances beyond her control. So it was no big change for any of us!

But we are looking for another house. The market, however, has gone crazy in our city. Once you could sell your house and find another easily because it was a buyer's market. Now it's completely the opposite: sellers are the winners, and buyers, if not quite the losers, are certainly having trouble buying something else. The prices are moving upwards at such a pace that if you leave it too long, what seemed a good sale figure on your own house, suddenly becomes not enough when you go to buy something else. And that goes not just for bigger houses but for little townhouses, units, places known as 'doer-uppers' - which usually stands for a place that going to take a good deal more than you paid for it to actually live in it.

When I last posted, I 'reprinted' a piece from 1994 which first appeared in a column I used to write - called Column 8. My intention is to keep on posting these columns (if they're not completely and utterly dated). There were five years of them originally!

But what's held me back from doing that, in part, is that I've been typing up more than 700 printed pages of a journal I kept from 1989 to around 2000. The journal was originally on an earlier computer, and thankfully I kept a printed copy of it. However, it had felt risky for a long time that I only had it on paper, so it's now all back on computer again. Amounting to something like 500.000 words, I guess.

More recent journal notes, from 2000 on, were typed straight onto computer, and copied from one model to another as time went on. And well and truly backed-up online.

When we began to tidy up things that we own in the present house, preparatory to a shift, we got rid of a lot of it. As you do. Including lots of papers and things that were really no longer of value. But I decided to keep a bunch of around 45 exercise books I'd written in over the years. Some of them are completely full; some have empty pages. Most of them relate to my spiritual journey - they might be classed as letters to God. Usually written in the morning, often at white heat (if my handwriting is anything to go by), and, to my surprise, more full of insights than I'd expected. Others relate to the craft of writing - various different approaches to encouraging myself and keeping my writing skills honed.

I've begun typing these books up too, and inserting the entries (which are mostly dated) in amongst the journal entries. It's intriguing how the more down-to-earth journal stuff contrasts with the spiritual. I might not live long enough to complete the task. But I'll give it a go!

Photo courtesy of F. Muhammad from Pixabay 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Unexpected Holiday

This column first appeared in Column 8, 20th July, 1994

My wife reckoned I couldn't write this column without mentioning that I've had the 'flu - I don't know what she means. I reckoned I'd avoid mentioning Ruth Richardson.
As I write this I've had a blackout-of-brain for at least three days - an unusual event in case any wish to comment on that last statement. So I'm having to wing it a bit this week, since I find that dredging myself out of bed to write a column has been about the last thing my beleaguered body desired to do.
I hear that some people have managed to survive having this strain of 'flu for three weeks - remarkable! I couldn't make mine last much more than the aforesaid three days before I found myself back on normal household duties.
In fact, there was a great deal of unsympathetic imitation of a certain television ad in which a rain-soaked gentleman climbs the stairs requesting hotties and chicken soup. Unlike this fortunate fellow, I frequently had to get my own hotties (except when the Aged Parent* lent a hand). This included one horrendous low point at 5.30 am when the unbearable cold in my previously mentioned beleaguered body couldn't stand it any more and Demanded To Be Warm!
The low point of My Illness was the day Ruth Richardson announced her forthcoming retirement from Parliament. My brain was drifting in and out of radio's National Programme, and every hour they told me the same three pieces of news, so that by the end of the day I could recite the material along with the announcer.
I'd never been aware before just how boringly repetitious the news is on the radio. Not enough happens in any one day in this quiet country so I suppose they have to keep repeating it until something really interesting comes along.
During the morning Kim Hill dissects every word, thought and remembrance of things past. At midday Geoff Robinson from Morning Report returns - after the announcer has Read The News Again. Geoff then repeats it (for the really slow) and discusses it, analyses it, gives us other people talking about it, and just when you think it's all finished, along comes the announcer again to Read You The News which is no whit different to the stuff he read half an hour before. That's for those who might want to check how many times the man from Federated Farmers stuttered.
Late at night they go through the whole routine again, though on this particular evening they managed to lose some of their recorded interviews and played them out of sequence. That added some variety - of the pinch of salt kind.
Predictably, some said, Ruth Richardson had been very generous in waiting until the Maritime Bill was on the water. Predictably, some wondered, surely she must have been just a teeny weeny bit upset about being dumped from the Finance job? Predictably, Michael Laws (who has to say something about everything - rather like some columnists), told us it was all sour grapes and she couldn't have chosen a worse time to leave.
She'll do well, of course, since her name on its own will sell the new business. I mean, when you've set a country to fiscal rights, you must be able to do something about the old investments, eh what? You'll note that they didn't call the business Mr and Mrs Wright's** Financial Consultancy - nah, it just don't taste the same, somehow.
By Friday I had managed to weep my way through a mildly amusing video called King Ralph - weeping only because my eyes ran of their own accord.
And later I coped with reading a bit more of the 1474 pages of A Suitable Boy. I'm nearly halfway there - at page 610 - as a result of my confinement to quarters. This paperback is so heavy to hold, however, I found it difficult to avoid toppling over in bed.
The true relief of Mafeking occurred, I'm sure, when a friend gave me a bottle of whisky - for medicinal purposes. Following an ancient recipe, I downed an occasional glass of warm milk, with sugar and a wee dram of firewater stirred in.
Sweet to the taste, very soothing - and plainly anathema to 'flu bugs.


*Aged Parent: the name my mother, who lived with us for more than twenty years, occasionally appeared under in these columns.   Borrowed from Wemmick's Aged Parent, in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. 
**Mr and Mrs Wright: reference to Ruth Richardson's married name.

Standing-In

This column first appeared in Column 8, July 13th, 1994

While taking a few days off last week, I caught up with an old movie called 42nd Street, one of those behind-the-scenes-stories about the trials and tribulations of producing a big Broadway musical.
The producer (permanently-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown), had to face a major crisis when his leading lady (still-madly-in-love-with-her-old-vaudeville-partner) broke her ankle the night before the big try-out in Philadelphia.
Where to find a replacement? In the chorus line, of course: the male juvenile who couldn't dance for rocks in his socks knew the new star was there all the time. After a rigorous five hours of I-can't-do-it!-rehearsal, she carries off the leading part with aplomb and panache.
Such things never happen in real life, of course - or do they?
Apart from watching a video or two on my holiday, I tried catching up on filing my newspaper cuttings. Amongst them I found a Christmas letter from a friend in England, and thought I'd drop him a note the next day to bring him up to date.
David, my friend, has worked at the Royal Opera House in London for 20 years or more, first as a repetiteur (him what teaches the singers their notes by repeating them until the singers have got them glued onto their brains), and more recently on the admin side. He's also conducted occasional performances.
Before I started the letter next day, I glanced at the ODT's News Digest section. And did a double-take of a significant kind: David, this very same friend, was mentioned in dispatches.
And why? Seems that during a performance of the opera Manon at the Royal Opera House, the lead baritone had fallen sick at the end of the first act. And the understudy had been sent home for the evening.
What to do?
David and the producer of the opera took counsel together, and came up with a stand-in job between them. David would sing the part from the wings, and the producer would go on stage and mime it in front of the audience.
The ROH is an enormous place to fill with a human voice, and I've seen more than one singer swallowed up in its cavernous spaces. David can sing, but for all that he's hardly what you'd call an operatic baritone. How he managed to make his voice heard from the wings is beyond me. Perhaps he was fitted up with some subtle form of microphone: a real no-no under normal circumstances in an opera house.
So standing in for the star does happen in real life - and I've experienced it happening at least one other almost-as-amazing time.
I was sitting in my Tooting Bec flat in South London some 20 years ago, listening on the radio to a performance of CarminaBurana at the AlbertHall. The baritone soloist was winging his way up through the high notes of his part when he came to a stifled halt: a strange shuffling and scuffling was heard on the airwaves - along with general wonderment from the audience.
It was a warm night; the Albert Hall was packed for the Proms season. We learned that the stuffiness and heat had overcome the poor baritone, all wrapped up as he was in his dress suit. Possibly he ran out of air from scaling heights which baritones are not wont to scale. (A couple of days later, on television, we would see the fellow tottering backwards into a row of first violinists, with music stands, chairs and musicians scattering in all directions.)
The management were save by a most remarkable thing: a young man who'd recently sung the same part in a production in the north, leaped up from his seat in the audience, raced round backstage, offered his services to the perplexed management - and was accepted! They tucked him up in a tuxedo, and whisked him on stage, where he proceeded to sing as though he'd been contracted to do the job.
And he too carried it off with panache and aplomb.



Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The writer's brain is a con-artist

Because my wife is working this week as well as through the Christmas period, I have some time to try to get moving again on The Counterfeit Queen, which has had a long time sitting on the back burner due to all sorts of family issues going on

Yesterday I went through and summarised each chapter that had been written in first draft* – fourteen chapters in all. The fourteenth ended in a kind of unsatisfactory waffle after having a nice twist in the middle of it. The fifteenth chapter had stopped after a few paragraphs, because I really had no idea what I was doing anymore. 

The previous chapters had begun to diverge from the (hard-won) synopsis to a great degree, and if I’d followed the plan as laid out I’ve have been going round in a large circle with more secret tunnels and more imprisonments. Even now it’s hard to get away from the latter – and secret tunnels want to creep in, in droves in this book. 

Courtesy Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
So this morning I began what I’d already planned to do over the weekend: rewrite the synopsis so that it was more in line with what had now changed in the draft. And then things started to go off on other tangents. Immediately my brain said, I’m too tired for this. Let’s go back to bed.'  I pointed out that it's only eleven in the morning. 

The brain talking like that is a sure sign that I need to push forward, but sometimes pushing forward requires the opposite:a step back. This morning I tried this approach: pushing myself to put words down, and then leaving them for a bit, coming back, finding my brain has been working away in the meantime (in spite of claiming to be too tired). Already this has given me a better way forward. 

I’ve also realised that because the section starting with the end of chapter fourteen is the climax of the second act, essentially, it can’t be just more 'stuff.' It has to be that turning point when things either go all well for the heroine or they fall apart completely. Falling apart completely is the more interesting way; it will give the third act more action, action that brings everything to a resolution as well as tidying up all the loose ends. 'Sounds like a lot of work,' says my brain. I don't disagree. 

Anyway, I’ve written down several things that at this point in the story are hanging or could be disasters if not handled properly (by the characters rather than me). I need to make sure I structure this sequence/scene rightly, otherwise it won’t have full impact. The brain is saying…’I’m tired, can we go back to bed?’ and giving me the lame excuse that I was awake at five this morning and surely that’s a long enough day already.

But the brain is a con artist. It claims to be tired when what it actually needs is the stimulation of a challenge. Throw something its way, and it will chew on it while you're not looking and come up with an innovation or solution that you hadn't expected, in fact, would never have thought of. (If that makes any sense.) 

I've lost count of the times I've given into the brain's so-called tiredness, gone for a snooze, tossed around for a while trying to get comfortable, and then found that the brain has solved the problem and wants to get up and going again. 



*When I say 'first draft' I actually the first draft of this current incarnation of the book. There have already been at least two unfinished drafts. But at least each new draft makes more progress than the previous one!

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Wodehouse on writing

I've been re-reading What Ho! The Best of Wodehouse over the last few weeks, and what a great book it is. There are chapters and short stories in it that are perfect gems of comedy writing. 

Towards the end of the book are some letters he wrote to W. Townend - just a few out of the hundreds he wrote - and one in particular is of interest to writers struggling to get their book to come together. Here is a man who had been writing for decades at this point - he was in his late fifties - and yet the first paragraph here shows that even after all his experience as a writer he could still struggle to get things right when it came to the story working out as he planned. 

The notes about this particular book are interrupted at the end of each paragraph by comments about other writing he was doing...

I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but I’ve been tied up with The Luck of the Bodkins. I find that the longer I go on writing, the harder it becomes to get a story right without going over and over it. I have just reached page 180 and I suppose I must have done quite 400 pages! Still, it is in good shape now...

I finished The Luck of the Bodkins on November 20th, and ever since have been in a sort of coma. Do you get like that after a big bout of work?...

Meanwhile, The Luck of the Bodkins was coming out with great difficulty. Have you had the experience of getting out what looks like a perfect scenario and then finding that it won’t write and has to be completely changed?...

By that time, I was struggling with the last chapters of The Luck of the Bodkins. Usually when I get to the last fifty pages of a story, it begins to write itself. But this time everything went wrong and I had to grope my way through it all at the rate of two pages a day. I began to get superstitious about it and felt that if I could ever get it finished my luck would be in. On November 29th I was within four pages of the end and suddenly all the lights in the house went out and stayed out. Still, I finished it next day, and it is pretty good, I think. Frightfully long – 362 pages of typescript – it must be over the 100,000 words...


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Acting and writing...books

The first book I published, Grimhilda!, was based on a stage play. This turned out to have both advantages and disadvantages. 

One disadvantage for the book version was that I had a script that worked on stage, and lines that dovetailed into each other. But a book doesn't need page after page of dialogue: there has to be action, and we have to be able to 'see' the characters. You need to free yourself from the limitations of the stage, and have your characters move through their 'scenery' in ways that aren't possible in front of audience. It took quite a bit of rewriting to bring the book to this point. 

On the advantage side, I already had dialogue that had proved itself on stage. When it came to writing the book, the best moments in the story had quality dialogue ready to go. (Though it was a task to ditch great bits of dialogue that worked on stage but weren't needed in the book! It's not easy to ditch lines you're fond of.) 

One other thing helped with the writing of the book. In the first decade of this century I had the chance to appear in several plays. There's nothing like having to learn dialogue, and then perform it as though it's coming straight from your own brain, to make you very aware of what works on stage. 

The plays had been written over the last hundred years, so there was a variety in style. It depends on how old a play is as to how the dialogue is written. Early 20th century plays are dialogue-heavy, and require actors to speak longer phrases and sentences, an art in itself. This doesn't mean that they necessarily sound old-fashioned. The playwrights of the early 20th century were masters of subtlety and give their actors wonderful opportunities to develop characters. 

Later plays can still have longer speeches, but they tend more towards shorter dialogue, and bursts of words tossed back and forth between two or more actors. This is a different skill for the actor and a different approach for the playwright. 

So how does this relate to writing dialogue in books? There's a tendency in fiction, now, for speeches to be shorter and snappier, and apparently (though not necessarily) more realistic. Furthermore, the author can insert information about how a speech is delivered, how a character is feeling, what action takes place at the same time, and much more. I've been re-reading some of the best P G Wodehouse; it's interesting to see how long a gap there sometimes is between what one character says and another answers, because Wodehouse often writes hilarious material about the characters between their lines of dialogue. These insights into things beyond the dialogue are of course only possible in books. 

Anyway, this post came about because I read a piece by Jennifer Zang, in which she recommends that writers (especially screenwriters) should take some acting classes in order to give them a better sense of how dialogue works - especially in films. But her comments apply to books as well. 

Acting requires you to think about why the character is speaking, it enables you to understand economy of words (I've been in plays where the director has cut swathes of dialogue in order to move the play along) and it assists you to understand the emotions behind the words. 

All things of great value to authors. 

Jennifer Zang's article is entitled: Five Reasons a writer should take an acting class, and appears on the Save the Cat website.