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.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cockamamie and gallimaufry

Geraldine McCaughrean, courtesy of Oxford English Dictionary

This week, Geraldine McCaughrean won the Carnegie Medal for her novel, Where the World Ends, a book aimed at middle-grade, early secondary readers. She used her winner's speech to highlight the problems she's had directly (as have other authors) with publishers wanting to dumb down language for children. 

She warned that a new focus on “accessible” prose for younger readers will lead to “an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation”.

A US publisher said, for instance you use the word gallimaufry. No child is going to know what it means’. Of course they’re not. Most people don’t know what gallimaufry means, but you get it from the gist, from the context. That’s how you learn language … and who doesn’t want to come across gallimaufry?”

Classic children's writers and more modern ones, including J K Rowling, Diane Wynne Jones and Susan Creech, all offer words that are out of the experience of the children reading the books. But that's the point: they offer them these words so that the children's minds will grow.

And if they don't understand the word, then they can look it up if they can't guess its meaning from the context. Even better, with Kindle readers, you can do that as you read, something I do myself frequently, even though I'm several decades older than middle grade readers. I do it with thrillers, and classic novels, with theology and philosophy and more. None of us has every word in the language in our heads, which is why dictionaries were invented.

When it comes to writing my own books, I've shied away from soft-soaping the language, both because I agree with what McCaughrean says, and because there are words that are apt for the moment, for the sentence, for the rhythm, for the character, for the humour. Often these won't be words a child will necessarily know, but if an easier, less suitable word, is substituted, then the child will never know them.

It's as if children's publishers want to deny children the treasures of their own language.

And why cockamamie in the title? It doesn't appear in any of my books, but I recently decided to use it in the advertising of Grimhilda! the first of my children's fantasies. It's not an everyday word, but has been around a fair time, and moreover, was used for a period by children in the US as a fun word. I may not use it again, but it has a distinctness about it that makes it stand out. And that's what writing is about: using the best word for the occasion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Chesterton's brother and Kindle formatting

By chance I recently came across a book about G K Chesterton, the famous early 20th century writer.
I have some 36 of his titles on my shelves, in paperback and hardcover, and a few more on Kindle.

The book was written by Chesterton's brother, Cecil, although when it was first published his name didn't appear on the cover. It's entitled, G K Chesterton: a Criticism, and looks at the early period of GKC's writing life, when he was still establishing himself, and then suddenly becoming well-known everywhere.

I began to read it a few days ago, and it's good, but the Kindle edition has more errors in it than all the other hundreds of ebooks I've read put together. It's been scanned from an old library copy - the library details have been scanned into the book, in fact, along with the due dates! But no one has bothered to check it whether the scan was accurate. Apart from typos, there are innumerable formatting problems.

Normally when you find a typo or formatting issue, or some other error in a Kindle edition, you have the option to inform the publisher. You can see how to do that here, if you're not sure. I began to do it as I was reading this book, but because of the sheer number of problems, I gave up.

Here are some of the errors I found:

1. Letters that were in a different font at the beginning of a chapter, or section, in the original edition, not only appear as garbage in the Kindle version, but the original capitalized letter may turn up several Kindle pages further on. (It took me a while to cotton onto this.)

2. Whenever poetry is quoted, there are additional lines between the original lines, and in one case towards the end, the rest of the ordinary text has turned itself into 'verse.'

3. Quotation marks are random, sometimes appearing, sometimes not. Sometimes they're replaced by asterisks, or some other punctuation sign.

4. There are large chunks of white space where you'd just expect the next line in the paragraph. In one case there's almost a whole blank Kindle page between sentences.

5. Sometimes after a break in the lines, the next section becomes incomprehensible, as though there were actually some words missing from the text.

That may not be everything. As I said, it became impossible to keep on informing the publisher - Amazon Digital Services LLC, apparently - about each and every mistake. There would be at least one per page, if not several.

The only surprise is that I managed to read the book completely, in spite of all the errors! The Kindle version isn't expensive to buy at $3.30 US, but since I'm expected, as an Indie Author on Kindle, to provide a quality typo-free, well-formatted copy for Amazon to work with, it seems only fair that Amazon themselves should provide something much better than this.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Raphael Alexandre Lustchevsky

I was recently asked to write a review for a local paper, but due to some muddle, the review didn't reach the right person on the staff in time. It looks as though it's not going to appear at all. So I'm including it here on the blog, for anyone who's interested. Due to the paper's restrictions, the review has to be no more than 300 words. 

Review of Raphael Alexandre Lustchevsky’s concert at Marama Hall, 10th May, 2018

The Polish Heritage of Otago and Southland and the Polish Embassy sponsored a concert by the distinguished pianist, Raphael Alexandre Lustchevsky, at Marama Hall last night.

Lustchevsky is presumably used to much larger venues, yet there was no stinting on his performance. He maintained a high level of energy throughout, with thunderous octaves in both hands contrasting with delicate runs and deeply-felt melodies.

His programme was never lightweight. The Chopin and Liszt pieces he played in the first half have huge requirements for the pianist.

Courtesy of Sabah Songs blog
Among these, in the two transcriptions of Schumann songs by Liszt, we have one (Frühlingsnacht) that is more Liszt than Schumann, while the other (Widmung) allows Schumann’s glorious voice to sing through. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, full of fire and passion, ended the first half.

Though the two Paderewski ‘miniatures’ in the second half were less strenuous, the two dances by de Falla, and the exhausting original piano version of Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin are full scale works.

Lustchevsky endeared himself to the audience throughout by introducing each piece in a warm and down-to-earth style, in clearly enunciated English. He reminded us before playing Chopin’s Scherzo in C sharp minor that though the word scherzo means a joke in Italian, this piece is ‘definitely not a joke.’

Several pieces in the concert were a tribute to his fellow-countryman Paderewski who had played them in New Zealand on his 1904 tour. Lustchevsky informed us that after the tour Paderewski left his Bechstein piano on Waiheke Island, where it now resides in Whittaker’s Music Museum.

Two encores ended the concert: Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, with its central tune made famous as I’m always chasing rainbows, and a lyrical Nocturne by Paderewski.

Distorting the facts

Back in 2015 I wrote about the play, Souvenir, which focused on the performances and life of
Florence Foster Jenkins. In 2016, Meryl Streep starred in a movie about the same person, which we saw around the time it came out, and then watched it again on Netflix last night.

I remember feeling somewhat disappointed in the movie, which also stars Hugh Grant as her husband, and Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, the pianist who accompanied her in her later years. 

Not only do we discover that her husband, adoring of her, and deeply in love with her, also had an apartment (paid for by Jenkins) where he kept his 'girlfriend.' In fact, he and Jenkins were never officially married: Jenkins may not have been divorced from her first husband, the one who gave her syphilis. 

A number of things in the movie are based on fact, but equally there are curious distortions. Hugh Grant's character, St Clair Bayfield, is seen as a failed and fairly amateur actor. In fact, he had a long career in the theatre, and was plainly able to act much better than is shown in the movie. 

It's hinted fairly strongly in the movie that McMoon is gay, though this may not have been the case. Helberg camps the character up with constant simpers, quirky looks, and a generally effeminate air. I much preferred the down-to-earth version of Cosmé that appeared in the theatre production. 

Meryl Streep, as always, is brilliant, performing the awful singing with ease (presuming it is her voice, as Helberg seems to indicate in an interview), and she creates a character who is seemingly unaware of her awfulness while being wonderfully generous to those around her - and plainly needing all the love that she can get. 

In the last week we also watched The Imitation Game, supposedly a story about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, and supposedly based on true events. Yes, there are a few true things scattered about, some actual persons portrayed, but for the most part this is a script based on the idea that it's good to wrap propaganda up in dramatic form, using fine actors to play the main parts and then forget about whether it actually connects with substantiated history. 

Thus Turing's difference (both his homosexuality and his genius) is made a basis for a theme about not bullying people who are different (though Turing is portrayed as even more of an arrogant bully in some scenes, as a man with no regard for the concerns of others). The feminist angle comes in by warping the history of highly skilled person, Joan Clarke, proving, for the feminists, that women can be just as clever as men. In fact more clever, because she solves the crossword in six minutes instead of the required eight. The fact that she was already at Bletchley before Turing arrived is ignored. 

(The same sort of approach was taken with Hidden Figures in which the black women were treated in the movie as astonishing the male characters - all white, of course. This doesn't align with the facts that appear in the book the movie was made from. But it pleased the female audiences, who cheered at the men being 'put in their place' when we saw it at the movies.)

Cumberbatch adds another of his people-don't-understand-me performances to his CV (it's frequently on a par with his arrogant Sherlock Holmes) and while it's been highly regarded in some circles, he presents a character who isn't any easier to warm to than Holmes was. Quite honestly, when Keira Knightly slaps him, you think, About time

Monday, May 07, 2018

On Writing 4: Writers should expect to get paid

In a diary entry for the 22nd of June, 1989, I noted: 
Yesterday I received $25 in the post from The Mouthpiece magazine ˗ it's about eleven months since I last wrote to them, and received a favourable reply, and a cheque in answer to my cheeky request. I'd read in the 1987 Writers' Yearbook that a cheeky writer had requested money for his work from a magazine that supposedly never paid, and had received a cheque. So I thought it was good enough for me too!
In today's money $25 is about $60, so this wasn't too bad a fee for a spec piece of writing. Furthermore, the editor had told me when I first sent them a piece that they 'didn't pay writers.' Yet, with a bit of cheek, I managed to receive payment each time I wrote for this non-profit magazine. 
The Mornington Brass Band which became the
St Kilda Brass Band in 1912.
(I've played for its soloists on a number of occasions)
The Mouthpiece was produced for brass band players in New Zealand. I should say 'is produced' since a quick look online shows that there are editions dated 2018. 
This is a prime example of the way in which a fledgling writer can get published, and get paid for it. I'd had enough experience with brass bands - as an accompanist to soloists competing in the brass band competitions - to be able to put together a few humorous articles, all of which were accepted over a period of two or three years. 
There's another lesson here: editors of small magazines that have a limited audience are always on the lookout for good material. Why? Because most writers who are earning bigger money don't need the few bucks that a little magazine can offer, and so don't write for them. Plus they don't get a lot of kudos writing for a magazine that focuses on a limited market. 
And equally, a lot of writers start out think they should only aim for the big magazines. Which will prove disheartening, because there are already plenty of writers working for them.
Small magazines are good for newbies, and also for those who can quickly turn their hands to a one-off piece. (Which of course you may be able to revamp for some other outlet.)