Thursday, July 12, 2018

p-book


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.)


Thursday, May 03, 2018

On Writing 3: Objectivity and subject matter

The two previous On Writing posts referred to extracts from my old diaries that were dated from 1990. It only occurred to me later that I'd started the diary in 1989, of course, and that that's where I should have started with these extracts. No problem. I'm now going back to 1989, where there's plenty of material for me to work on.

The first mention of writing comes on the 18th of April, 1989, the day after that initial typewritten diary began. It's interesting that it also discusses ideas. Whereas in yesterday's post, the extract was lamenting a lack of ideas, at this point - when I was still doing the Writing Course - I seemed to have an abundance of them!

I wrote:

I've got four things in the pipeline at the moment. The biggest problem, however, is not getting started (or even finding ideas especially), it's trying to end the stories satisfactorily, so that they don't just wimp out, but end satisfyingly - yet not obviously. I'm now at the point where I don't want to send something off with an incompleteness to it. Formerly I was satisfied to get the thing ended and sent off. Now I'm finding I can't find a proper conclusion, and until I do I don't want to waste my time posting it. 

This was quite a step forward. Learning how to assess something I'd written, and be objective enough about it to say it wasn't thoroughly cooked was important. It's something everyone has to learn, although a number of writers these days seem to publish before they've learned this...

In the same diary entry I mentioned a magazine called New Zealand Disabled, or NZ Disabled, as its masthead stated. I wrote a number of articles for this monthly, and the encouragement of the magazine's editor was considerable. 


As I mentioned in a previous post, there's money available in writing for small magazines - and less competition from more established writers. I usually profiled some person with a disability (I was actually warned off calling them 'disabled people' at one point, though not by the editor) and met a number of interesting people as a result. It wasn't hard to find candidates for the profiles, and almost every interview I did turned into an article.

In fact, there are still a number of magazines relating to disability being published in New Zealand, which means, presumably, there are plenty being published elsewhere. This online page gives a list of them. It may be out of date - NZ Disabled had changed its name to Without Limits by the time this page appeared, and the link shows that under that title it didn't last long. But careful research through your local library will enable you to find a number of smaller magazines that can be approached with articles.

If you're just starting out, this is a great way to get experience.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

On Writing 2: Ideas


On the 21st of January, 1990, I had some exciting news. I wrote at the time that it was 'quite exciting.' I'm sure I meant it was really exciting, and it was: a children's story I'd written had been accepted for a very popular New Zealand children's radio programme called Ears, which ran from 1988 to 1996. (Ears was the name of the programme; the story was called When Dad Went Fishing. You can read it here.)

Instead of encouraging me to go on and write more children's stories, I did one of those things writers do and got despondent. I'll never have another idea!we cry. I don't know why this happens; maybe it's a kind of let-down after something good has occurred. Here was what I wrote at the time: 

In regard to children's stories, I need piles of ideas to draw from so that I've got something to work on, and don't feel I have to dredge up something to make it work because I have nothing to back that one idea up. At present I feel really dry when it comes to trying to write something for the kids. I've tried lying in bed at night thinking of something: doesn't seem necessarily to be the most productive place. Last night, I had an idea about a house shift, and the little kid getting lost continually in the middle of it all, and lists of the things that the family were packing as the hours went by, and increasing numbers of people coming to help. But developing something like this is the problem: having the energy to do it. 

Of course it isn't having the 'energy' to do it, it's the getting on and doing it. Procrastination, which I've talked about a number of times on this blog and which I'm sure I'll talk about again more than once in future posts, is the thing that gets writers into such trouble. 

But let's not give procrastination more house room for the moment. Let's talk about ideas. We don't have to 'dredge up' ideas. We have to be aware of ideas that come unbidden, and note them down, even if at that stage they're barely formed. They will often lead to something later. 

Yesterday I came across one of my old music manuscript books in which there are scribblings galore, the beginnings of a number of songs and piano pieces. Some of these sketches (often no more than a couple of bars) sat in their poor naked state for some time before getting their moment of glory, and becoming the start of something big. Often the ideas had started out as nothing more than a bit of twiddling on the piano, or even flightier, a bit of a tune in my head. Seldom do these things stay in that twiddling or flighty stage, or course. They vanish if we don't seize them. 

We should never feel 'dry' about ideas. Trying to 'think up' ideas is a waste of time, especially in bed at night, where, if you actually did have an idea, you'd have to race out of bed, grab a pen and jot it down. In the dark. 

Courtesy of Danny Steaven
What is curious about the extract from my diary above is that in spite of my complaints I then go on to jot down an idea, one that even now I can see the possibilities of. Why didn't I pick up on that at the time? Who knows? 

The basic point is that ideas are everywhere, if we're prepared to keep our eyes and ears open. We
have to be aware that they won't come in a final state: they'll be like a moth or butterfly, barely able to be caught before they're gone. It's good to have a pen handy, or to jot down something on your mobile phone.

The thing not to do is say, Nah, that 'idea' isn't worth pursuing. Ideas are gifts from God - He leaves it up to us to develop them. 



Tuesday, May 01, 2018

On writing: Exercising your writing muscles

In January, 1990, I began keeping a diary on my computer. I'd often kept handwritten diaries before, spasmodically, but this one was much more regular, and more detailed. It was written on my old computer and then printed off regularly, finally amounting to some 700 pages. It was good that I printed it off, because the disks that the diary was saved to are long gone, not being compatible with later models.

Much of the stuff, of course, is private family material, but in 1989 I'd been unemployed for six months, and had started doing a writing course by correspondence. (My father, Frank Crowl, used to play chess by correspondence.)

By 1990 I was well through the writing course and between being father of a family with five children and working as a manager of a bookshop, I found time to write articles and the occasional short story. Most of the articles got published, because I'd been advised to aim not only for the major New Zealand magazines but for the small ones: trade mags and special interest magazines. The latter proved to be the place that was happy to publish my work. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, scattered with varying degrees of frequency throughout the diary are references to my writing joys and woes. I thought these would be of interest on this blog, and have decided to include posts with extracts from the diary as and when I can. I'll keep an index of these on the blog for reference.

Here's a brief opener from the 6th of January, 1990.


In doing the index for my filing system I came across a quote again by a poet who talks about the need for exercises, even in writing poetry. He compares it to the concert pianist who must exercise each day in order to play the pieces well. I think it's something I've avoided because it appears to take away too much time from 'real writing,' but in fact it's out of that exercising that the ideas often flow, and the work of writing is limbered up. I've been reading two books in the last few weeks, one on writing plays, and the other on writing in general. The latter has some excellent ideas for working out as exercises and the other, though it sometimes seems simplistic in its exercise approach, is probably what I need to really write plays well. I don't want 'just' to be a playwright, but an all-rounder. However, I want to be able to write plays as well as I can when I do.


I'm not sure that I took my advice about doing writing exercises as seriously as I should have, subsequently, but I do recommend this all the same. There are other ways to do exercises, of course. Blog posts are a great writing exercise, as are typing notes galore for the children's book I'm currently writing. In fact, anything that gets you putting down words on the page/computer is worth doing, even if those particular words aren't ever used as part of something publishable.

I have an interesting book called The Exercise Book which lays out dozens of ideas for exercises, some of which various people have turned into poems, stories, books. The book is by Bill Manhire and others. Manhire is one of New Zealand's literati, and a creative writing teacher. Don't let that put you off. The exercises are the thing, along with the stimulation of approaching writing in a different way.

See also an earlier blog post from 2014, in which I mention Peter Elbow and Anne Lamott, both of whom saw first drafts and writing even without any aim in mind as of great value.



Monday, April 23, 2018

Music teachers

The pianist who plays for the choir I conduct - the Choristers - has been cleaning out her house. She handed me a twenty-six-year-old newspaper cutting today: it was something I'd written for the weekly column, Column 8, back in November 1991. It's a little negative to start with, but improves as it goes on.

Here it is:

A group of heroes work in our city show conditions would make most wharfies pale. I'm talking about music teachers.

And I speak from experience - for a few years I taught piano from three till whenever, after spending a frenetic morning as a postie. I must have been mad.

Utter dedication is required of anyone who decides to take on this job as a permanent career. (I didn't.) The frustrations from pupils who don't work combined with the frustrations from those who do work but will never play anything with the slightest hint of musicality, have to be experienced to be believed.

One in a hundred pupils may have the spark of musical life in them; the sort of spark that makes you think they may achieve something. The other 99, however earnest they may be, will fall by the wayside, and during their mid-life crises will gloomily say, 'I wish I'd carried on playing the piano.'

Or worse, 'Why didn't Mummy and Daddy make me practise?' Have you ever tried to make a child practise? Their attention manages to be focused on everything but the keyboard.

I recommend the 1953 fantasy movie, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T, to anyone who doesn't know what I mean.

Music teachers sit for hours in the same room, often seeing only an endless stream of children. It's like being a solo parent. The occasional adult pupil may or may not be a bonus, depending on their reason for learning.

When everybody else is out socialising in the evening, music teachers are teaching. When other people are having a leisurely meal at home with their family (something we still haven't achieved - the leisurely part, I mean), music teachers are teaching.

When other teachers are enjoying up to eight weeks' paid holiday per annum, music teachers are forced to spend those same weeks unemployed, eking out the income they've earned during the rest of the year.

And in spite of using new material as it appears, the basic details of what they teach hasn't changed much in decades: there is no New Music to go alongside New Maths. Scales are scales are scales. They have to be learned. However much most pupils may dislike them, (I used to enjoy them actually, but then I'm a bit unusual), no musician worth his salt can afford not to learn them.

I write with a sense of awe to think that one of my former music teachers has been teaching for nearly 60 years.

Originally she lived and taught in Sawyers Bay. She commuted to Port Chalmers to teach as well, but being without a car (of course), she had to walk. Usually it only took half an hour. It took somewhat longer in the Big Snow.

Later she rented rooms in town, and still later, during the war, had a room in the Glenpark Presbyterian Hall. When she calls it the 'dug-out' or 'dungeon', you have a pretty good idea of what it was like.

Mice were frequent visitors. Boy pupils had to empty the mousetraps, to their disgust. (I'm pleased to say I was still a twinkle in my father's eye when the war was on.)

By the time I was her pupil, she lived in a pleasant house in Mornington. The comfortable music room was built over the garage; moving the two pianos up there must have been a nightmare.

Sounds like music teaching pays after all, I hear you say. Well, maybe it does, if you're prepared to put in endless hours of dedicated and concentrated work, you only contact with the outside world being your pupils.

So all hail to music teachers - they never go on strike. Many workers who do hardly know they're born.


A few notes: The teacher's name was Olive Perry. She never married, and her mother lived with her until she died. Olive herself has been dead for a number of years. Her house was actually in Maryhill, only two minutes walk away from where I now live. 
The Glenpark Presbyterian Hall was replaced at good while ago, perhaps fifty years. The new one has no dungeon, and probably fewer mice. 
At least one of the two pianos in that upstairs room was a grand. 

A short letter to the Editor was attached to the clipping. Unfortunately there's no indication as to who wrote it. 

In his column today, Mike Crowl has some nice things to say about music teachers and some less kind things to say about the job itself. Perhaps it's not really so bad. The one thing I've noticed over the years is how many music teachers keep on going to a ripe old age, many well into their 80s. Is it a 'soft' lifestyle that allows this, or is it the daily challenge of taking each of their pupils just one stage further that keeps them alert and active?

The pianist who gave me these two clippings commented that she has been teaching for nearly 70 years. Another teacher in the city, a man, has only recently retired: he's in his early 90s. Miss Perry herself certainly taught for a long time. 
I wrote Column 8 for around five years in the early nineties. 






Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Happy Birthday update on Gareth Farr

To my surprise, it's about ten years since I last mentioned Gareth Farr, the NZ composer, on this blog. Very remiss. 
I happened to hear an interview (more like a friendly discussion) with him on the Concert programme today. Apparently he turned 50 recently - except that his birthday is on the 29th February, so he's strictly speaking only twelve and a half. He made the comment that in a couple of years (I think it was) he'll be thirteen. 'Gareth Farr the teenager!' he cried. 
Farr's relatively new Cello Concerto (from May 2017) was mentioned, and I was pleased - and surprised - to see a video of the piece's premiere performance online at the Publisher's website.  I'm listening to it as I write, and after its wonderful, slow, eerie opening - repeated three times - it moves into Farr's usual energetic approach, as well as more lyrical sections. And of course there's lots of percussion. 
Sébastien Hurtaud is the soloist. His facial expressions while playing remind of those of Stjepan Hauser, who's one half of 2Cellos. Hurtaud isn't quite so manic though...which is probably a good thing! 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Loving Vincent

We went to see Loving Vincent last night. If we hadn't gone, there would have been only one person watching it.

The theatre should have been full: this is a wonderful movie about Vincent van Gogh. It's not the greatest movie of all time - the script is a little undercooked. It's probably not even the greatest animated movie of all time, but it has a certain unique quality that sets it apart.

If you don't already know, the movie was shot with live actors in front of a green screen. There are a number of well-known faces in the cast, such as Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory and Chris O'Dowd. Intriguingly they all speak with British accents rather than French or European ones, so that we hear Irish and Cockney amongst others. This takes a little getting used to, but it works.

Once the live action was shot, paintings by van Gogh were 'composited' into the background and the film was edited as normal. Then each frame was projected onto a blank canvas, and one of some 125  hundred artists painted - in oils - over the projection, using the techniques Van Gogh himself would have used.

The result is a movie rich in colour, with real depth and texture. None of the artists had worked on an animated movie before, so they brought a different sense of colour and animation to the screen.

Initially, the eye is almost overwhelmed with the movement - clouds never stay still, trees continually reform their leaves, even people's hair moves from frame to frame. It's a little disorientating. And it's wonderful seeing so many of Van Gogh's paintings coming to life during the course of the movie.

The story is more straightforward, almost a detective story. Armand Roulin, the son of the postmaster who was a friend of van Gogh (both of them appear in well-known van Gogh portraits), has been charged with delivering a one-year-old letter that Vincent had sent to his brother, Theo. It had gone astray. During the course of trying to get the letter to its rightful home, Armand discovers that things were not entirely as they seemed in relation to Vincent's death. Being impetuous, he often jumps to conclusions, and he's led astray by the variances in the stories people tell him about Vincent's last hours.

The audience is also led astray: one minute feeling that new revelations about Vincent's death have come to light, the next finding that another character contradicts what we've heard. It leaves the viewer with a kind of emotional confusion, and an increasing sadness at the shortness of Vincent's life, and the reasons behind his death.

I found the movie very moving for reasons I couldn't put my finger on. The reason for that doesn't matter. Both my wife and I were overwhelmed with the sheer beauty of it.






Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Writing a fight scene

One of the hardest things I find to write is an action scene.

There's a theory that when there's lot of action you should take your time over it, writing more rather than less. And I think this is useful. Most readers will have noted how, when the climax of a story is coming, the author gives more and more detail, expanding the big moment, even though it may in real terms all be over in a couple of seconds.

I'm in the middle of the draft of my fourth children's fantasy. It doesn't have a name at this point, so it's just book four. It picks up some leading characters from the other three books and throws them together in a new story, but one that hopefully connects back to the earlier books.

I've got a note to myself that in the climax of one chapter, where a villain is (probably temporarily) dealt with, that I need to fill this out more. Everything is over for the villain in a couple of sentences.

But today I've been trying to write a small fight scene, where the three main characters overcome three people on the opposite team, as it were. They can do it, but getting it all down on paper has required considerable writing and rewriting - even though this is still only the first real draft of the book. I don't want to skimp at this point because it's likely that what happens here will affect later scenes.

Who does what to who at which point, and who gets in first, and how do the baddies retaliate, and so on, all have to be taken into account. If I'm not careful the baddies could easily end up winning the scene!

Grimhilda intends to shoot Toby,
but his father stands in the way.
Photo by Ian Thomson
When my co-writer and I were working on the play of Grimhilda!, which came before the book version, we spent hours on making sure that on stage everything in the fight scene at the end would work. We made sure there would be time for a character to move from here to there before someone else did something to them...and so on. And then the director came along and ignored all our stage directions! I know that's not unusual, but when things work in the script, it's possibly wise to at least try those things out before changing them!

When I'm writing a book I'm not only the scriptwriter, but the director as well. This has its advantages, but it means you've got to careful to keep things tight as well as clear. You can't give one of your characters the upper hand by extending out how long they have to win when the rest of the characters have much less time. (Though you do see this done in the movies all the time.)

While your readers may be so excited at the fight itself they'll allow you as the author to get away with certain inconsistencies, I think it's valuable to know that if they fight was staged for real, it would work. Just one of those little disciplines we writers have to live with!


First drafts, notes, brick walls

I wrote around 2000 words on the new book yesterday, but twenty-four hours later think that some of that writing will have to be scrapped. 

That’s how it goes on the first draft.

I work best, it seems, writing something down – anything – rather than trying to think ahead without having already done that investigative writing, the writing that 'finds' the story, in a sense. The Disenchanted Wizard was done this way. It was written and rewritten; whole chunks and chapters were scrapped. While it often seemed a hard way to work, the book was eventually all the better for it. 

Not everything in the finished book appeared in the 'first draft.' Some things appeared in exploratory notes where I mulling over what might happen. Early in the process I wrote two chapters about the night the Dog (later to be the Wizard) was sent into the map. These never got into the book in any form. One of the characters present in those chapters vanished entirely from the story in due course, even though in the very first draft he’d been the catalyst for what happened to the heroine. However, the events from those two chapters, in a modified form, were scattered about in bits of exposition in the final book. The sense that they’d been ‘real’ at some point in the writing process helped to make the exposition clear and concise.

I recently read Andy Martin's book, Reacher Said Nothing, in which Martin sat in on Lee Child's writing process during the course of the writing of the book, Make Me. 

Child, to my surprise, writes with a real 'seat of the pants' approach. He starts writing with an idea in his head, and stops when he doesn't know what to do next. He never writes a second draft. The first draft is it. With Make Me he wrote 500 words and stopped for several days. But the thing was, within those first 500 words were the seeds of the rest of the book, only he didn't know at the beginning how all those seeds would come to fruition. He didn't even understand what his characters were actually doing, or who the person was that had just been killed.

There are plenty of seat of the pants writers around; most of them write a quick first draft and then go back and revise and revise, often producing several more drafts, usually with substantial changes in them. I've never heard of any other writers who work to Child's method - unless of course you count 19th writers like Dickens and Trollope, who seemed to start at the beginning and write until they were finished. (Trollope supposedly could write 'The End' to one book, and then go straight on into chapter one of the next.) But Child's refusal to rewrite anything is more unusual for modern writers, I suspect. 

The other difference in his approach is his refusal to hurry. If he doesn't know what happens next, he waits, waits until he can see how things will develop. So in a sense a lot of his writing obviously goes on inside his head while he's doing other things - and this book gives the impression that he does quite a lot of other things.

Unlike Child, I'm not good at 'writing' in my head. 
I need to put things down in order to be able to think. What I put down may seem dislocated and shapeless, especially when it's in note form. I don't regard these notes as planning the novel structurally, by the way, and anyway, they often arise after I've started to write the first draft, especially when I've got stuck. But those notes usually spark off the next stage of writing. 

Sometimes I just have to stop completely, because things are flabby, and the first attempt at writing a scene means I've come up with something less than interesting - to others. Or I've used the same escape technique one time too many - as I suspect I have in what I wrote yesterday. At that point it takes an outside eye to tell me I can do better. I don't enjoy being told I can do better, but the books are always better for it...!





Thursday, January 11, 2018

Writers on writing

I used to write a weekly column. Very early on I learned that people give you much more credit for your supposed knowledge than you deserve. I wrote about rhododendrons once, and had people ringing up for advice on how to look after them. I had no more idea than they did. So it was intriguing to come across the following quote from Kingsley Amis, in which he (rather tongue-in-cheek) discusses his writing techniques. This item first appeared in The Listener UK, though I found it in a Readers Digest April 1990. 

There are one or two little tricks of the trade you learn by writing a lot of novels: how to handle transitions more smoothly, get your characters without fuss from one scene to the next. And you get better at what might be called the tip-of-the-iceberg con. You imply that you know everything about a subject – for example, eisteddfods – just by quoting two or three little bits. The implication being, ‘I could tell you all about it if I had room, but I’m just letting these little bits out. That’s the tip, but there’s a huge iceberg.’ Of course, there really isn’t iceberg. 

This second quote was also in that Reader's Digest. It originally appeared in the Esquire magazine, and it has Columnist Bob Greene discussing his profession:

Bob Greene
I do not lift heavy objects; I do not manufacture things. What I do is to go out and see things and meet people, and then I put it all on paper for strangers. That may not sound like work – sometimes I can’t believe I get a pay cheque for it. I have been writing a column for over 18 years, and I have become virtually incapable of experiencing things and keeping them inside myself. 
I talk to people and notice things, and then I turn those things into a column for the most wonderful gift a storyteller can be given: an audience on the other end. The way I see it, everyone of us in the writing business starts off with precisely the same tools: the 26 letters of the alphabet. All we can do is try to arrange those 26 letters in a different way than anyone else has before.