Friday, September 25, 2015

Great review!

One of the best reviews I've had of any of my books relates to Diary of a Prostate Wimp, and was recently posted on It's not only an enthusiastic review, it helps tell people why the book is worth reading. 

What would anyone find in a book about experiencing prostate problems?
Here - you'd find a lot! Not that these are my problems, I hasten to say. So why read it, why review it?
Because I enjoy reading about process. My favourite quotation is The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I like and learn from reading the first and subsequent steps of any journey.
So this book fitted the bill perfectly. The process of dealing with prostate problems.
I found it thoughtful, sensitive, insightful and poignantly amusing.
One of the best things about the book is Mike's openness - he is dealing with what we normally don't discuss, penis-es, urine samples, peeing, overflow...the less discussed problems. By writing so openly about these issues he is in fact normalising them, making them understandable and acceptable. He introduces friends with the same problems, and uses their narratives to support his own descriptions, and he uses the greatest friend of all, God, whom he happily describes as 'Dad'. His communing with Dad I found the most touching part of the book. Also touching was his openness about the support of his wife, and the issues of intimacy.
By the end of the book I felt more understanding and empathy with a variety of health processes, not just those dealing with prostate issues.
Well worth a read.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An integrated shackle for the tack

I've always loved the idea of a gooseneck holder. It's one of those things that sound much more interesting that you think. I know now, whereas I didn't once upon a time, that it's a piece of equipment musicians use, but before I knew this I imagined all sorts of possibilities, not the least of which was literally holding onto a goose by its neck in some sort of prefabricated holder. 

I suspect this isn't as easy as it sounds, however effective the holder is. Geese aren't by nature the most amiable of creatures, and even if you managed to catch one in the aforesaid holder, it's likely its mates would be onto you in a flash, pecking away at whatever body part they could aim most directly for. 

The holding of the holder might be short-lived in such a case. 

Courtesy: Joel Bradshaw
Goosenecks don't just appear on geese, of course. Nor is it only musicians who deal with them. A gooseneck appears on a sailing boat and is, according to Wikipedia, the swivel connection on a sailboat by which the boom attaches to the mast. The boom moves from side to side and up and down by swivelling on the gooseneck. 

This gooseneck may be a two-axis swivel, in fact, with an integrated shackle for the tack. These are common. Something about the first sentence in this paragraph strikes me as having a poetic shape:

This gooseneck may be a 
two-axis swivel, with an 
integrated shackle for the tack. 

Don't you love that last line: an integrated shackle for the tack. I have no idea what it means, but no doubt Wikipedia would inform me if I was a mind to find out. Here's another version of the verse:

A two-axis swivelling gooseneck
an integrated shackle for the tack. 

Getting better all the time. It just goes to show you where a bit of creative meandering on a topic will lead you...

Two steps forward, one step back

See a 2021 update on this post at the end...

I wrote last month that I was intending to work on sorting out the chapter order of the second half of my latest children's book, The Disenchanted Wizard.

That was the plan, and I did it. But then along came my co-author, and her opinion of the second half of the book was that it wasn’t at all on a par with the first half. (In fact while she wasn't rude about it, she might as well have been.) I could only agree: there were weak spots, the climax was merely a repeat of an earlier episode with a bit more drama, and the characters had gone round in a circle to come back to where they started when they should have been moving forward.

Quite disheartening, and for a few days I couldn’t see a way forward. However, I began doing something an author called Peter Elbow had suggested in a book (Writing without Teachers) that I’ve had for many years: write and keep on writing even if it seems total nonsense, because at some point in the writing you’ll start to find ways forward again.

Well, I did do this, and it worked up to a point, and then I felt as though it was getting sticky all over again. I tried several creative approaches, things suggested as ways to get the brain functioning in just such a situation, and out of these emerged an idea of discussing the book with one of the characters. In this case, the villain himself.

This proved productive (when he stopped sulking about not being the hero), and more progress was made. And then when he seemed to want to go off and do something else, I began talking to a ‘person’ I called the ‘Outliner’, that is a person who prefers to write books by working them out in advance. (I tend to be a writer who likes to write and see what happens...)

The Outliner and I are still discussing things, and bit by bit solutions are coming to light. My co-author and I (yes, she’s a real person!) will get together and start discussing these things face to face and hopefully will make real progress, working out how the second half is going to function.

Her perennial phrase to me is: You Can Do Better. And she’s right. So that’s what I’m aiming to do currently.

Onward and upward.

23.8.21 It's interesting to come back to work that you'd forgotten you did when you were writing a particular book. I skimmed through the discussion with the villain; it was very one-sided, with me doing most of the talking and the villain seemingly choosing to be out of cellphone range most of the time. 

But the discussion with the Outliner consists of a nearly 7,000 word two-part document written on two separate occasions a few days apart. I haven't re-read it all, but it looks as though the seeds of most of what eventually happened in the second half of the published book is there. And in this instance it's the Outliner that does almost all the talking. 

Interesting how the brain works when it wants to...

Where writers go wrong

Last year I read most of a book by Sol Stein, called Solutions for Novelists. I read it rather randomly, skipping back and forth between the chapters, but one chapter in particular struck me enough to make quite a few notes, and so I'm including and edited version of these here, since they're helpful for many writers, I think. They relate mostly to a chapter entitled, Where writers go wrong. I've laid them out here as bullet points, just to keep them a bit more readable.
  • Try summarizing the book in one page [that's easier, I'd say, that Blake Snyder's one-sentence approach - Blake Snyder of Save the Cat fame]
  • Break the draft down into scenes [Stein recommends doing this before the draft is written, unlike some of the others I've read recently who opt for just writing and then pulling it together. Both methods work. However he also quotes both Malamud and Fowles on page 142/3 who talk about writing the first draft to find out what the novel is about. See comments from them at the end of this post.]
  • Then check if the order of the scenes is right for full emotional experience for the reader.
  • Stick with one protagonist - two or more means the writer hasn't worked out whose story it is. [Although, that said, there are some books with more than one protagonist that work perfectly well.]
In the rewrite of your draft keep an eye out for: 
  • Sentences that are out of order [this also applies to phrases within sentences]
  • Authorial asides [I noted one of these in the chapter I was writing at the time in The MumbersonsGrimhilda! had a number of them because it's part of the style.]
  • Adjectives that aren't necessary. [And of course adverbs, which, by the way, are still essential in their place.]
  • Things that only the author can know...these have to go if you're focused on your protagonist's story.
  • Unimportant. or too early, appearances by minor characters. [Just finished reading UnderMajorDomo Minor, by Patrick de Witt. He ignores this advice by interrupting the main story to write about minor characters in a way that's irrelevant to the main events.]
  • Descriptions of the way a piece of dialogue is said [he whispered] are often better before the dialogue.
  • Be clear to the reader as to who the protagonist is.
  • Didactic stuff that isn't part of the actual story [don't think The Mumbersons or Grimhilda! are guilty of this.]
  • Delete words that soften the pace. And cliches - find fresh ways of saying things.
  • Too many antagonists? [Note how I originally had trouble with dwarves as well as witches as antagonists in The Mumbersons, until finally one of the two had to go.]
  • 'Beats' - those little bits of 'business' that characters do within a dialogue scene. They need to be relevant, and give the scene actual action not just pretend action. [I remember the awful 'business' in the popular Christian apologetics book The Case for Christ where Lee Strobel broke up long conversations with real people, by always having them crossing their legs, or standing up to make coffee.]
  • Don't bring in backstory late in the book [Amazingly that's exactly what a novelist who was also supposed to be an editor did - terrible muddle of a book - the book is The Accident, by Chris Pavone.]
  • 'Point of view of the person is most affected by what is happening.' In other words it's not necessarily always the POV of the protagonist, though it helps to keep them in focus. In The Mumbersons, Olivia gets some POV too, because she's an identifying character. POV doesn't mean seeing it from their perspective necessarily, but focusing on what's happening to them without interrupting it with another character's POV.
  • Avoid cartoonish cliche characters; the sort that often appear in TV series, especially US ones. {Note how there's often the 'funny' character, the geek, the wacky secretary and so on in crime series: they're always unbelievable to me.]
  • An antagonist can be given his or her due by the writer seeing both the protagonist and the antagonist as equal antagonists. Interesting thought.
  • Pets can humanize a character. [Snyder is strong on this idea: the title of the book Save the Cat applies to the hero doing something that puts him onside with the audience - rescuing a cat, for instance. Even the most unpleasant ‘heroes’ need this kind of moment to make the audience have some empathy with them, and of course antagonists often have animals accompanying them.]
  • Be careful with names that have similarities, or use the same initial letter, or even how you feel about a character...though perhaps this isn't so applicable in a kid's book where fun names are more usable. J K Rowling is as good as Dickens when it comes to naming her characters.
  • Phone conversations shouldn't be used often.
  • Trim down any fat in a tense scene - in terms of detail that's not relevant enough.
  • 'We know' - means the reader already knows this and doesn't have to be told again - or rather doesn't want to be told again. This is different to a stage play where audiences have to listen and can miss things, and may need them repeated.
  • Be particular about details - the three-wheeled car [in The Mumbersons] can actually have its brand name, for instance. [Not being good with cars, this was something I had to research for that book!]
  • Omens are good...
  • Characters do the same things too often: he smiled, she shook her head, etc. [In one book I read in the last couple of years, characters kept showing their 'incisors'. Really? This seems to me a difficult thing for them to do.]
  • Don't throwaway an important event, such as the finding of a body.
  • Confrontations, not discussions.
  • If action seems confusing then work out things in sequence - like those picture boards they use in making action movies.
  • Make sure the action word is can't sprint across the average office.
  • In a realistic novel don't do melodrama. Keep it sensible to real life. 
  • Make sure the readers know who is the characters as you go. Too many books leave the reader in the dark as to who is talking.     
Bernard Malamud notes: First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. D H Lawrence did seven or eight drafts of The Rainbow. The first draft of a book is the most uncertain - where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.

John Fowles (who wrote The Collector in a month) says: During the revision period I try to keep a sort of discipline. I make myself revise whether I feel like it or not; in some ways, the more disinclined and dyspeptic one feels, the better - one is harsher with oneself. All the best cutting is done when one is sick of writing.  


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Learning piano

Someone asked me the other day about when I began learning the piano. It's so long since I began - something like 63 years - that I have no memory of learning how to move around the keyboard, or of learning to read the notes. Somewhere along the line I found I was able to sightread more readily than some musicians, and that led me into a career (professional for a short time, but mostly amateur) as an accompanist and repetiteur. Not everyone goes this way: there are just as many, if not more, musicians who learn to play more by ear than by reading. It has its advantages and disadvantages: once you've got the notes under your belt you can sit down and play most popular music with relative ease, but it also means that you never quite learn to read as comfortably as you might.

I don't envy anyone beginning piano. Though children are more natural at learning than many adults, learning the piano is still a major undertaking. Instrumentalists who play only a single note at a time, look on with wonder at pianists (or organists, or anyone who plays a keyboard instrument) because there are so many notes going on all the time. Pianists probably often wish they had only one note to play at a time: by comparison with what they have to do, this would be a piece of cake!

Friday, September 04, 2015

The migrant problem

What is it that's sparked off the sudden angst about the refugee crisis? Refugees from Syria have been struggling to find homes in other countries for three or four years. Migrants have been invading Hungary for at least a couple of years (to such an extent that there's now a fence along the Hungarian border), and Sweden has been absorbing migrants for much longer (and is now struggling with the cultural difficulties of a people who won't assimilate).
Australia has been dealing badly with boat people for I don't know how long, and has been virtually imprisoning them on Nauru in appalling conditions.
Boat people have been pushing into Italy for more than a couple of years, or drowning in the Mediterranean.
Is it that we've reached a tipping point? Has a photograph of a small boy drowned on a beach triggered off something particular? It's hard to see why this is different to the photos of hundreds of people on leaky boats hoping against hope that they'll be saved before they drown. And the thing is that there are a number of European nations who are actually doing good work in helping such people.

I think it's amazing that 10,000 Icelanders are prepared to house refugees; but how long for? And where will the refugees go once they want to have their own homes, or when the Icelanders find they're struggling to house them?
Germany is talked about taking in tens of thousands of refugees, and being admired for it. Where exactly is Angela Merkel planning to put all these people? What will it do to the structure of German society?
In the light of the great difficulties the UK is already having with hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in its midst - a number of whom are threatening the fabric of British society - how will they cope with even more? It's become a huge difficulty in Britain - a country with Christian roots - to find that a people living in their midst are denigrating the foundations of their society.

I certainly don't think NZ's immigrant quota is large, but presumably there are people from other nations besides those with refugee status who want to make their homes here. We have taken in large numbers of people before: I can remember during the Hungarian Revolution that a number of Hungarians arrived. And there were many Dutch immigrants arriving when I was a child. And later on Cambodians and Vietnamese began arriving.
As a country we certainly have room for more people; in fact part of our problem is that in some ways we are just a little too small for our own good. I don't have a problem with increasing our quota. I am troubled, however, by the way in which people from a Muslim background have tended not to assimilate in the countries they've gone to. Perhaps this will work out over a couple of generations and the mix will work. But Britain is one of the strongest examples of it not working. And I feel uncomfortable about the possibility that it may not work here either.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Reading kids' books

I read kids' books quite often, and by kids' books I don't mean those aimed at any particular age group but ones ranging from delightful full-colour picture books to books that just come in just under the young adults' age range. I've read some YA books too, but usually they're romances or gloomy apocalyptic things, and I'm not so strung out about those.

I had a real go at Diana Wynne Jones' books in 2011, when I read eight of them (they vary in quality but are always imaginative). I read a couple more earlier this year. Her books are in the same kind of fantasy genre as mine, though of course, so far, she's been considerably more successful than me in terms of a wide readership and lots of sales.

However, in the last month I've read a couple of other books I'd like to mention. The first is Speed. Speed is a word with several meanings of course, and Grant uses that ambiguity in her title and in her book. But it's also something of a speed read, because she piles on the angst and the action. I'm not sure if anyone's yet invented an equivalent of the phrase 'page-turner' for e-books, but whatever the correct phrase is, it applies to this book, which I read on my Kindle.

It's probably aimed at young teens: the hero was around 14, if I remember rightly, and proved to be a pretty tough character by the time he'd got himself through dealing with his parents dying and lying policemen and houses burning down. This book is by the Kiwi writer, Dawn Grant (although she writes under D C Grant). It's the first in a series and I wrote a brief review on Goodreads: The book races along at a great pace with the young hero gradually getting himself deeper and deeper into difficulties. Along the way there's a good deal about coping with grief as well as making the right decisions even if they may cost you your life. 

The second book was one I finished today. It starts off a bit more slowly than Speed, is aimed at a slightly younger age range, and is written by someone living here in my home town, someone I haven't met face-to-face but have corresponded on email with. I'd written to her husband on a few occasions - he writes a column in the ODT called WordWays - and it was he who introduced me to his wife and told me about her book. 

This author is called Beatrice Hale, and she's written an exciting adventure called Ice Escape. (You can see my review on Goodreads here.)  This book has two young narrators, both boys, and while initially it's a bit of a puzzle as to why the second narrator is there, it soon becomes evident that the two lads' lives will connect. 

The story is about a family embarking on a long flight together, on a flying boat. It's set in the 1920s and their adventure is meant to take them around the world. Of course, this being an adventure story things don't quite according to plan. The characters are straightforwardly-drawn, and the adventure itself is exciting enough to make you keep turning pages again. But the interesting thing is that a great deal of information about flying, and living in a perilous situation, and being rescued, and working on a fishing boat is included. There's no sense that it's there just because the writer thinks it's interesting, but because it's integral to the story. 

I probably won't write a thriller like Speed or an adventure story like Ice Escape. But each book you read shows you better how to write your own - quite apart from the sheer enjoyment involved in sharing the adventures of fictional characters. As poet Billy Collins writes in One Life to Live
...this is the only life I have and I never step out of it, 
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel...