Monday, April 24, 2017

Nate Wilson

I've only just started reading Nate Wilson's fantasy novels for children (he also writes books for adults), so it was sad to hear - via a tweet from his father, Douglas Wilson (an even more prolific writer of all manner of things) - that, as this page describes it:  'Nate is preparing to undergo extensive brain surgery to remove a “farm egg” sized tumor near his brain stem.'  

Nate and his family, and his father's family, are all Christians, so the perspective on this relatively sudden sideswipe to his life is being handled in a manner that might be different to those without a faith. I say 'might' because no doubt there are people without faith who can face such a trial with humour, bravery, integrity and the like. As Nate seems to be doing. 

Still, if I was in his shoes, even though I'm a Christian too, I'd be struggling with this situation. I don't regard myself as a brave person, and anyone who's read my book Diary of a Prostate Wimp will know that I found even that relatively minor interruption to my otherwise healthy life quite a challenge. (This wasn't intended to be a opportunity to mention my book, by the way. It just came to mind...!)

So those of you out there who are praying people, pray for this fellow-writer, that the operation required will be successful and he will come through it safely. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Hemmed in by geography

I'm reading a very interesting book at the moment called Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, by Tim Marshall. I think the subtitle is slightly overstated. 'Everything' isn't true, because some countries aren't included: Australia gets three brief mentions, and New Zealand one. Plainly our politics aren't global enough.

But what the book does tell you is fascinating. It brings a whole new light to so much world news, and some breadth to just who holds power in the world. And who doesn't.

For instance, Russia, which is a vast nation in terms of real estate, is in reality only a relatively small country, because so much of the area it covers isn't much good for human beings to live in (as anyone sent to Siberia will tell you). The Russia we mostly think of is a smallish area to the West.

Furthermore, there are considerable problems with Russia's location: it's far more landlocked than it would like to be. And that's what Marshall is discussing: countries are bound far more strongly by where they're physically placed on the earth than by many other considerations. If there's no real access to waterways, then that can be extremely inhibiting. A number of countries are completely landlocked. If there are mountain ranges on your borders, then this may be helpful in terms of stopping invaders, but it's also a nuisance when it comes to trying to get over the mountains yourself.

And it helps to have good neighbours. Many countries don't, and spend a great deal of time fighting those next door.

Marshall also points out how the 'countries' we know in the world at present are, in some cases, relatively new on the world map. They didn't exist in this form a couple of hundred years ago. The British are to blame for some of these changes (along with the French and other empire-building nations). For example, the Brits, once they'd done with their Empires, tended to make hasty decisions about who would live where after the Brits themselves had gone. India and Pakistan's problems stem in part from this. Pakistan is one of the youngest 'nations' in the world, because basically it didn't exist less than a hundred years ago. Bangladesh is ever younger.

The Brits also drew lines across vast swathes of the Arab world, causing some of the problems we know today - though not all of them. The Arab tribes have been at war with each other for centuries, in one way or another. But a somewhat laissez-faire approach to map-making has had some huge consequences for those living in the region. You wouldn't expect maps to change the way nations see themselves; maps, after all, are only pieces of paper. (Unless of course they're magic, as the map in my latest children's fantasy is.)

Marshall manages to get to the nub of different countries' problems in succinct ways, and leaves you with a clearer understanding of what's going on around you. While his thesis is that geography itself is partly to blame for much of the world's infighting, he also shows how the movement of peoples around that geography can have beneficial or disastrous effects on other people, ones who were there first, as it were.

Marshall's point about geography, of course, affects us all even at a micro level. I live on a hill, which affects how I get to the city retail areas which are mostly on the flat. But it does mean I have great views of the Harbour and sea. I'm unlikely to be flooded, because water runs off our property easily, unlike some of my fellow citizens in areas that have been reclaimed.

New Zealanders, for the most part, live on two relatively equally-sized islands (imaginatively-named by our forebears as North and South). The gap between these two islands is a nuisance for travellers. Either we have to fly from the South to the North or vice versa, or we have to spend a considerable time going over the Cook Strait, a choppy bit of water that isn't always kind to travellers.

The North Island is warmer, as you'd expect, and has more population in its bigger cities. But in spite of what North Islanders think, the South isn't that cold: Scotland is much colder in the winter; many cities in the USA have snow for months at a time. We here in Dunedin, for instance, are lucky to get it once a year.

So geography and weather make a difference, as Napoleon found to his cost when he lost thousands of his French soldiers to the Russian weather - as Hitler also did with his German troops. For all our sense that we live in a world of vast choice, the reality is that we're hemmed in considerably by geography...

Marshall's book is fairly up to date, but the world keeps changing. He extends his book's range on his website The What and the Why.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Football on the rise for both sexes in NZ

The national game in New Zealand, as you probably know, is rugby. And it's a blokes' game. Or rather it used to be. In fact there are plenty of women throughout the country playing rugby just as fiercely and energetically as their male counterparts.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Saturday morning game one of my grandsons was playing in. His position is hooker, that guy who dangles between two props in the scrum. And this fellow really does dangle because he's small for his age. Some of my friends won't believe this, but I actually played hooker myself way back when I actually played rugby. But unlike my grandson, who's in there boots and all, I wasn't cut out for the game. Half the time the players from the opposite team would wind up covered in blood when we went down in a scrum: my blood, because my nose would bleed at the drop of a hat. Even if my nose hadn't bled, I still preferred indoor sports, with the less physical contact the better.

It was interesting that the visiting team in this particular game had one girl player in it. And she was very good: she had speed, and she was excellent at kicking goals. She could have been easily hurt by some of the bigger boys in either team, but she seemed to manage to keep out of their way - or perhaps they avoided her, because I think even in boys of that age there's an inbuilt sense that girls won't take the impacts a boy might.

Courtesy NZ Football
I said at the beginning that rugby is our national game, but soccer, it appears, is rapidly catching up. And of course there are girls in soccer too, and plenty of them. (The National women's team is called the Football Ferns; the men's is the All Whites, in contrast to the internationally-known men's rugby team, the All Blacks.)

One of my other grandsons used to play in a team when he was younger that had girls as well as boys in it. Now that the boys are bigger I think the sexes are separated off into their own teams. But girls' teams are catching on fast. There was a photo in the sports pages of the newspaper a couple of days ago promoting girls' soccer, in fact.

Which was part of the reason that I decided that the main character in my latest children's fantasy, The Disenchanted Wizard, would be a girl who plays soccer - with a passion. And also idolises Xanadu Whitworth, the top player in the city. At the beginning of the story, Della, the soccer player, is putting up an enormous poster of Xanadu in her bedroom. Her younger cousin Harold thinks Xanadu's smile is probably photoshopped. Della scoffs at the idea, and it turns out, in due course, that she's right to scoff. But she's wrong about some of the other things Harold has to say...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Making your books more discoverable

I've been reading another article on marketing my books, something I do with enthusiasm about every two or three days, and this one basically suggests looking at your books and working out what niche markets different areas of the book(s) might appeal to. I haven't got my teeth into my earlier three books as yet, although I did do something similar with Diary of a Prostate Wimp, a couple of years ago, putting myself on various Facebook and Twitter pages in relation to prostate cancer and such. But to focus on my latest book, The Disenchanted Wizardthe first focus is that the main character is a girl who plays soccer. Okay...there a thousands of girls who play soccer, some in teams with boys, some in all girls teams. The secondary main character is a boy who's intensely nterested in maps. Off the top of my head I can't think of a marketing area that consists of boys who are interested in maps, but no doubt there is one. For instance, I just discovered a whole page of images on Pinterest that looks at ways you can decorate your boy's room with map themes. (Even if the marketing research doesn't open up the doors you're interested in, the things you turn up on the Net in the process are themselves interesting!) It seems to me that a problem with marketing children's books is that it's difficult to market directly to children. Even with print publications, the marketing is almost always via the parents, or the grandparents - or uncles, aunts and sundry cousins. But these adults aren't the first readers of children's books (although many adults, including me, do read children's books - I've just read two books by Nate Wilson, for instance.). It's the children we want to encourage to read the things, but it's finding ways to do that that's not so obvious. It's a whole different ballgame with adult books: it's adults who are online at all the obvious social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest and so on. (Carmen Amato, the author of the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post, writes mysteries, for adults.) On the other hand, I always find it curious that TV ads for some children's products play at night, when the children they're aimed at are in bed. The ads in general are cringe-making, and yet there they are, in the middle of some program about some specifically adult interest. Are they actually aimed at the parents? I guess they must be, otherwise they wouldn't be on at such an hour. Yet if that's the case why are the ads so kiddiefied, with goo-goo kids all raving about some new product that looks for all the world like something no adult in their right mind would take to. (And the kids often seem to be too old for the product they're endorsing.) So maybe, to advertise to kids, you do have to advertise to their parents. (Yes, I know there are kids ads during kids programs as well - that's another issue.) The question becomes: How to get the parents' attention about something that doesn't focus on them? Some further thinking required...

High hats

I've quite often written about music and instruments in this blog, but it only struck me today that there's hardly any mention of music in any of the four books I've written. Odd, since I'm a musician as much as a writer. (And so, it turns out, was Robert Louis Stevenson: he wrote over a 100 pieces of music, as well as playing the piano and flageolet - a kind of recorder.)

Anyway, here I am writing about music yet again in this blog. 

High hats, (or hi-hats, or even hihats) are the common names for a couple of cymbals set in opposition to each other on a stand, with a pedal operated by the drummer's foot. Why they're called high hats I haven't been able to find out so far, but no doubt if I left the question open someone would be able to tell me. 

They haven't always been called high hats. Wikipedia explains: Initial versions of the hi-hat were called clangers, which were small cymbals mounted onto a bass drum rim and struck with an arm on the bass drum pedal. Then came shoes, which were two hinged boards with cymbals on the ends that were clashed together. Next was the low-sock, low-boy or low-hat, pedal-activated cymbals employing an ankle-high apparatus similar to a modern hi-hat stand. A standard size was 10", some with heavy bells up to 5" wide.

It doesn't look as though they were ever on the ground, in spite of their being called shoes or low-sock, low-boy, or low-hat. Plainly the drummer wanted to keep them at a reasonable eye-level. But these earlier names are as delightful as high hat (which is another name for a snobbish person, based, presumably on the idea of the snob wearing a top hat). My favourite is low-sock. There's something evocative about this: did drummers wear short, short socks at some point, as a part of their uniform? Perhaps not. Maybe their socks slid down with all the effort of using nearly every limb to play their varied instruments? Who knows. 

The interesting thing is the way the names rise up the scale, as it were, from shoes to low-sock to low-boy (the mind boggles) to low-hat to high-hat. As though these double cymbals were gradually going from being some lower-class symbol (ho, ho) to joining the upper cut. 

Whatever the source of the name you can find more than one high hat at

Friday, April 14, 2017

Catching up on Classics

Just finished reading Treasure Island, for the first time ever. I knew the outline of the story, so I may have seen the Disney movie way back in the fifties (but don't really remember it) and I may have read a Classics Illustrated comic version of it when I was a child, but as for the book, I've never opened it before. The only reason I've read it now is that someone wrote about it in an article I read - an article I can't put my finger on again now - and it struck me that Treasure Island would do nicely as something to read, even more so as there was a free version of it on Kindle.

The book is surprisingly grim and violent. Deaths abound from beginning to end as the various pirates associated with the treasure are disposed of one by one by other pirates intent on being the last man standing, so it seems. It's much worse than one of those TV series in which a bunch of seemingly random people are killed off in order to make it more difficult for the detective to figure out whodunnit.

And even Jim Hawkins, the young hero (Stevenson isn't particular about his age, though he's often called a 'boy') kills at least one of the pirates. Hawkins tells most of the story, and this aspect of the book is very well done...until Stevenson, out of the blue, interrupts his narration with one by Doctor Livesey. Naughty Stevenson, I can hear all those contemporary writing gurus saying. It does come as a bit of a shock, and only lasts for a few chapters before Hawkins takes up the tale again. Was it necessary? I suppose so, since Livesey gives us information Jim can't possibly know.

Stevenson's writing is superbly stylish. There's a great deal of atmosphere, the discussions of ships' tackle is convincing, and the Island is vividly drawn. The characters are nicely delineated, especially the more well-to-do ones such as Squire Trelawney and the Doctor, and Captain Smollett. Long John Silver is of course a character who's larger than the book, almost, and some of the other pirates have their peculiarities both of mannerism and speech.

And the names are great: apart from those mentioned above, the names stick in the mind. In fact, as each one appeared, I thought, Yes, I remember this one. Remember it from what? Classics Illustrated? Blind Pew and Israel Hands and Ben Gun and the like.

Well, this year so far I've managed to catch up on The Three Musketeers as well as Treasure Island. I'm onto Peter Pan next, another one I've never read. Must be a year for classics...not necessarily illustrated.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Slow writers

A longer review of The Disenchanted Wizard - from Lorraine Orman - is now on KidsWordsNZ. She finishes the review by noting: Non-stop action and a strong focus on the child protagonists are combined to create a satisfying fantasy for readers (probably girls) of about 9 to 12. I was pleased to tell her that I know of two very enthusiastic boys who've also read the book, so we can take 'probably girls' with a grain of salt. It didn't seem to bother either of the boys that the main protagonist is a girl; anyway there are plenty of males in the book as well!

I've begun writing a fourth book, but it's in the extremely early stages so far, finding its way with some difficulty. And if the last book is anything to go by, what I've written so far is just as likely to be ditched by the time the book reaches its final form. 

I was pleased to read a long blog post by Anne Allen today called Slow Writers: Are they Doomed to Failure in the Digital Age? Having taken some two years to complete The Disenchanted Wizard, which by any standards is a relatively short book, I think I would call myself a slow writer. And yet two other books that appeared in 2014: Diary of a Prostate Wimp and The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret were each written in a few months. So maybe it depends on the book as to whether slowness is an element or not. 

Still, a book of 30,000 words should, you'd think, take a good deal less time than some of the books running to 600 pages or more that I've been asked to review in the last two or three years. But when a book requires constant rewriting and revision and rethinking, then any book of any length will take time. And a dose of procrastination doesn't go amiss either, when it comes to dragging out the time involved. 

I'm currently reading through an old journal I kept. At the moment I'm in the section written during 1990, when I was really finding my feet as a writer. Again and again I write of the struggles of trying to write with so many other calls on my time (I was working full-time and had five children), but also dealing with procrastination and with the difficulties of revising. So nothing much has changed it seems!


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Typos and puns and fans

Over the last week or so I've been reading a kids' fantasy, The Midnight Glass, by D T Vaughn. It has a great climax, and a couple of neat surprises towards the end. Other people might have seen what was coming, but I didn't, so they were very pleasing when they arrived.

Unfortunately there are some typos and missing words in the book. It seems as if other people who've read it weren't perturbed by this, but having a kind of proofreader's eye, those sorts of things stick out like a sore thumb. They don't take away from the story, but just catch you up as you're reading along.

The irony is that my wife said to me last night while reading my book, The Disenchanted Wizard: 'there's a word missing here.' It was an of, but she picked it up, in spite of the fact that I've been through the book with a (plainly not effective enough) fine tooth comb, and so has my co-author. And to cap it all, my son informed me today that when his son enthusiastically read the book in the last couple of weeks he commented afterwards, 'There was an and missing at one point.' Oh, dear...

Anyway, on a more positive note, a friend of mine was here tonight and said she'd bought all three of the books in the series, after at first having had some trouble finding the most recent one on iTunes. Whatever the problem was, she'd obviously overcome it, and her son - a voracious reader - had already finished Grimhilda! and loved it, especially the humour; was into The Mumbersons, and keenly anticipating reading The Disenchanted Wizard. He even pointed out to his mother how 'clever' the title of this last one was...did she get it, did she see how it was a play on words, etc?  I think he's my greatest fan....!

He's talking about using the three titles for a book report for school, which has to be about a New Zealand author. Wow, I'm really into the big time now...!

But something else he said really made me laugh. Those who know the book, Grimhilda!, will know what a sticky end that lady comes to. This young fellow's comment to his mother was 'She should have been taken into custardy.' If you don't get that, my advice is to go and buy a copy and read it. You'll see how delightfully in tune with the book his comment was.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Music in my books...Not

I was just thinking how curious it is that there's hardly any mention of music in my four published books: the two most recent ones: The Disenchanted Wizard and The Blood Secret don't even mention the subject; there's one brief mention of it in Grimhilda!, and three passing ones in Diary of a Prostate Wimp. This is surprising to me, now, because music is as much a part of my life as writing. I've played piano for more than sixty years, and been involved in a lot of amateur shows as well as accompanying soloists in competitions and concerts. I was even a professional musician for a couple of years.

The old journal from the 90s that I'm typing onto the computer, however, has lots of references to the music work I was doing at the time, sometimes quite long sections, as when I was describing a trip to Wellington with the St Kilda Brass Band, where I not only accompanied some of the soloists in the solo competitions, but also played a percussion instrument in the full band's competitions.

Plainly, in the next book I write - if there is one - I'll have to be include music a good deal more, to make up for the lack of it elsewhere in my writing.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
I'm more of a old-school pianist, and play classics and popular music from the earlier part of the 20th century in preference to more recent stuff. (So I don't have much interest in bass guitars at But one of the teachers I play for about once a month has introduced me to more recent popular music, from shows I'd never heard of until I came to play a piece from them (such as Matilda). My education is sadly lacking in knowing what shows are current on the big stages these days, or what movies appeal to kids so much that they have to sing the songs from them. (Moana and Frozen, for example.)

Anyway, it's good to learn new things, and to contend with the trickier rhythms in these 21st century songs. Talking of new things, I'm working hard to learn how to play the vocal score of a new opera that's going to be performed here in Dunedin, in July. It's called War Hero, with music composed by John Drummond, who's written a number of short and full-length operas, several of which have been performed here, and even had their premieres here. This will be the premiere of War Hero as well.

It has an all male cast, which is probably not surprising, since it's set in the First World War, and it deals with the well-known pacifist, Archibald Baxter, and the virtual torture he went through because of his beliefs. I think it'll be a powerful piece on stage. The music isn't too difficult, now that I'm getting the harmonic world into my head. But it doesn't take concentration!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

2nd review of Disenchanted Wizard

In yesterday's post, I mentioned a riot in Castle St, in 1990. I should have also mentioned, being a writer, that I used this fact in a novel I wrote but never finished. In the novel the narrator and his son found themselves trapped in Dunedin's main street, with students smashing windows of shops and generally vandalising. The narrator and his son go into a nearby jeweller's shop. The jeweller locks the door behind them, afraid of the vandals. He lets them out the back door, where coincidentally they met the narrator's wife, from whom he was now separated, and who, for some reason I can no longer recall, didn't recognise them. I'll have to go back and see why!

That's what happens to novels when you aren't working on them. You forget the details. I've just had a review of The Disenchanted Wizard sent to me by a friend and in it she quotes a line from the book. I looked at it and thought, I don't remember writing that! But of course I had, though in the context of the book it's possibly a little less wise than it seems in the review!

Anyway, for those who don't want to go to the trouble of checking out the review on Amazon, here it is:
Here's a great quote from this book: "Libraries are always safe. Unless you read the books." And - having just read this exciting and action-packed fantasy - I can add, "And unless you end up trapped inside a magic map!" Della and her cousin Harold see strange things on the antique map, but when they show Della's father he turns white and rushes out of the house. Della and Harold follow him and become involved in a nightmarish plot to take over the minds of the city's residents. A succession of dangerous pursuits and escapes ends with an awesome finale at the local football stadium. A suspenseful read for fantasy fans aged about 9 to 12. 

The review was written by Lorraine Orman. She's the author of a number of books herself, mostly in the young adult range - some of which I read a number of years ago. I can't remember how we came to know each other, but we had quite a bit of contact at one point by mail and later email. We met up once, in Auckland, over on the North Shore, and we've loosely stayed in touch since then. She's a member of a writers' group on Facebook that I belong to as well. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bob Jones and a riot in Castle St

I'm currently putting onto computer the typed journal I wrote back in the early 90s. It's fascinating stuff, covering the complications of family relationships, the beginning of our journey with our current church, now called Dunedin City Baptist, discovering people who would become long-term friends; my successes and failures with writing - a number of small-scale articles getting published, and the work I was doing on a young adult's novel; and the highs and lows of running a Christian bookshop.

Every so often there's also a bit of news beyond these circles. For example, on the 16th April, 1990, I wrote:

The students are well and truly in the news today: a drunken riot in the Castle St area, with 1500 involved in some form or other; a garage collapsing under the weight of about twenty student spectators; furniture being dragged out into the street to be set alight; and further through the paper, we have Bob Jones in his column berating some engineering student in Auckland for writing [that] the study of the humanities was a waste of time because it was non-productive. Jones gives him a real going-over, saying that it's the humanity students who learn to think, compared to the engineering, legal, commerce and so on students who shouldn't even be at University at all, but in separate tertiary institutions, since they are only learning how to use facts. Quite an interesting piece of writing from his lordship, who usually manages to come up with some commonsense dressed as nonsense! Often what he has to say would be fine if he wasn't so bumptious with it. For once, his subject is allowed to speak and Mr Jones is kept in the background. 

A little explanation is required for those who don't live in Dunedin. Our University campus is relatively self-contained over several large blocks, and many students live within those blocks or on their borders. Castle St, over the last few decades, has become one of the more notorious areas for such events as I'm describing here. Couch-burning, which has always seemed to me to be a pretty clueless occupation given the toxic fumes many couches give off, is still done, though it's been
After the balcony collapse - courtesy of Radio NZ
frowned upon severely by police and Proctor alike. Riots are less common, I think, though not large gatherings of students. And in the last couple of years a balcony outside a flat collapsed (harming those underneath more than those on it) when too many students stood on it at once. 

But the other interesting thing about this is that the University itself is tightening up on the Humanities Departments by cutting back on staff, and reducing them in size. Naturally there's been a considerable outcry, but to little avail. Obviously whoever is in charge of such actions thinks along the lines of the Auckland student mentioned: the humanities don't 'contribute' therefore they should be demolished. 

Bob Jones seldom made friends because of his bumptious attitude to a great number of things, and people - in fact I'd already mentioned him in the journal because of this. But here, for once, he makes a solid point, at least as far as the humanities are concerned. These are the areas where people learn to think. That's not to say there are no thinkers in the other departments (the lawyers might be most offended at his statement) but in general these other departments take known facts and work with them, developing from there. The Humanities go beyond this, study what's been written before, what's been thought about before, learn how to think about these things, and then can apply their thinking to other situations. That's a very rough view of what they do. But their value, though not always obvious in profit and loss terms, is of value in looking at how society thinks and trying to get it to think clearly and honestly and wisely.