Monday, December 23, 2019

Unexpected Holiday

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The writer's brain is a con-artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Wodehouse on writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Acting and writing...books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All things of great value to authors. 

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A long-forgotten letter

In my pieces for Column 8, a column I wrote weekly for about five years back in the nineties, I more than once played round with words and how the English language seemed to have lost a lot of useful ones. 

I've been typing up an old journal from 1996 over the last months, and came across the following entry. I said at the time it was a piece after my own heart. It was originally a letter to the Editor in the New Zealand Listener, published on the 27th January, 1996. The writer was John Ruck. Kim Hill was a very popular broadcaster at the time, and more than 25 years later her gravelly voice can still be heard on Saturday mornings. 

‘Kim Hill’s use on National Radio of the word ert to describe breast implants that should have been inert, but weren’t, makes me wonder how many other potentially useful words lie rusting on our lexicographical scrapheap.

Couth and gruntled have already emerged from the shadows, of course. But what else might we find with a bit of judicious backforming?

Well, there’s delible. It means ‘easily erased,’ as in ‘use something delible, like a 6B pencil,’ or ‘the Democrats have made a delible impression on our national politics.’

Trepid might slide timidly into our language. Truder would be a welcome guest. And ique (pronounced eeek) must eventually be found everywhere.

Note that, to be useful, such decapites [he gives the two letter es an acute accent] must be shorter than the words or phrases they replace; in these hectic times, a syllable saved is a syllable gained.

So poverish just too long to enrich our vocabs. But pologist (for example) is much snappier than ‘public relations consultant’ (he of the hevelled appearance and peccable morality.)

Hey, how about dertaker for the fellow who has to dig ‘em up again? Is becile too facile for a member of Mensa?

Interested readers who find other treasures may care to forward them to Kim Hill for possible transmission. Terested readers, on the other hand, might just as well turn the page.’

I hope the Listener and Mr Ruck will both forgive me for copying this here, but it seems to good to be lost in the archives of a magazine. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

More on proprioception

More from John Jerome's book, Stone Work, on the subject of proprioception. Page 148 

Wading on through fallen leaves, I make one more small mental obeisance to proprioception, to the entire sensory universe that gives me a self to take out for walks like this. My head tells me this is true – that the sense are where the self comes from – but it is a touch too psychological, and therefore fuzzy, for my tastes. I’m more comfortable with the harder edges of physiology and physics. Ah, that’s it: proprioception is where physics and physiology come together. That must be why it fascinates me so. It’s the tool that helps you get the physics right, the means by which you get the pleasure out of physics. It is the internal rigging that locates the body in time and space, the three-dimensional internal map of the body that redraws itself, realigns itself, with every move you make.
I’ve been thinking and writing about proprioception for ten years now, in one forum or another, and keep failing to get its wonders adequately set down, the impossible riches brought to us in those mysterious moments when information turns into experience. Can’t find a way to say it hard enough, can’t sing that clear, clean line.

My frustration reminds me of Lewis Thomas’s essay ‘On Embryology’ in The Medusa and the Snail. He is speaking of the process that at some point switches on a single cell and allows it to grow into the brain. ‘No one has the ghost of an idea how this works,’ he says, ‘and nothing else in life can ever be so puzzling. If anyone does succeed in explaining it, within my lifetime, I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a whole fleet of them, and send them aloft to write one great exclamation point after another, around the whole sky, until all my money runs out.’

John Jerome on proprioception

Back in the mid-nineties I read at least two books by John Jerome, who was a kind of essayist, but whose essays usually encompassed a whole book. The first, The Writing Trade, was greatly inspirational to me early in my writing 'career.' I enthused over it in my journals. 

The second, which I don't remember a lot about now except that I enjoyed it greatly at the time, was called Stone Work, and basically looked at the issue of building a stone wall. In July 1995 I copied out a shortish section of the book into a journal I was keeping at the time. Here's the extract from round about page 144:

October in the woods is a forced march into the sensory life; I am armed with, let’s see, the capacity to discern shapes, motions, and colours, to perceive smells, hear sounds. I can also touch things, feel their textures, taste them if I dare. But that’s about it, in the way of experiencing the woods. Except, that is, for proprioception, self-sensing, without which I couldn’t get into the woods to enjoy them. Proprioception is the sense that makes the first five work, that fetches pleasure (and pain and everything else) and brings it home to us. It is seldom mentioned except among psychologists, an almost secret capacity that explains a huge part of how we experience the world..

Surgically deafened songbirds were found to sing their songs as well after the surgery as before. (Science can be hideous.) They sing, we must assume, by how the song feels to sing, rather than by how it sounds. (But then any division of the sense is arbitrary. Auditory clicks produce measurable electrical activity in the optic nerve. Are we seeing these clicks? Is the eye hearing them?) To sing by feel rather than sound is to sing by proprioception. The proprioceptors are nerve endings embedded throughout the muscles, tendons, and joints of the body that read and report on relative position of body parts, on movement, loading, acceleration and deceleration. They make the musculoskeletal system the largest sense organ of the body, a receptor as well as an effector. Proprioceptors are the neural devices that weigh and judge and perceive whatever we do with that muscle, from performing eye surgery to hitting high C to levering a two-hundred-pound stone into place in the footing of a wall. They tell us where we are and what we’re doing as we are doing it; they are our connection to the present tense of physical action.

Some of us get very good with our proprioceptors. Those who do are frequently called athletes, or performers. Playing a violin concerto, for example, may be as dazzling a demonstration of proprioceptive capability as man has yet devised. (And oh, by the way, it’s hot in the hall tonight, your fingers will have to rewrite the music to fit the sag of the strings as your performance goes along.) Those of us who don’t get good at proprioception are called spectators.[1]

A group of athletes is asked to rehearse the skills of their sport in their minds alone, without actual movement, while wired to electronic sensors. The sensors indicate that the motionless athletes are actually firing the same muscles, in the same sequence and with the same timing, that they would if they were actually performing the sport. That is, the physical act is in the musculature as well as the mind.

When I do manage to listen to the cries of birds, where I feel it is in my throat – in the place where singing would take place, if I could sing. I can’t fly either, but when I watch bird flight as I do more often than I listen I feel it in my shoulders. I watch with my shoulders. I’m sure that what is so lovely about bird flight is not simply what the optic nerve sends to the brain, but also what the brain sends to the muscle. The flight of birds is so lovely to me precisely because so much more of my sensory capacity is involved than vision. The guitarist listens to music with his fingers. The fingers may not actually be moving, but that’s where the signals are going, are being picked up. I swear it. I’ve watched musicians listening; I’ve seen their fingers twitch.

Proprioception is the connective tissue of the sensory system, the sense that orchestrates the other five, that ties them all together into a coherent representation of the world. It is how one walks, sings, lays stones. It enhances the degree of contact of a kiss. How can we think our pleasures only come through the other five?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Thomas Hardy, the Time-Worn Man

Some time ago I read Thomas Hardy, the Time-Worn Man, by Claire Tomalin. Not the most cheerful or pleasant character, but interesting, and the book is notable for Tomalin's often ironic comments. These are some extracts that I noted at the time. The page numbers refer to the Large Print edition and the sections in italics are my comments. 

Page 100: 
Poor Hardy, suffering pangs of guilt for even thinking of imitating great writers. He needed someone to tell him it is what writers have always done, teaching themselves by imitating what they most admire. [Hardy had used shorthand to hide his suggestions to himself about imitating particular phrases he enjoyed from the works of various poets.]

Page 107 - [Horace Moule (the black sheep of the Moule family, depressed and often alcoholic) wrote to Hardy]
...he sent Hardy some good advice on writing: 'the grand object of all in learning to write well is to gain or generate something to say.' [Italics in original]

page 180 - [Minny Thackeray (the author's daughter) married to Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill, comments after a small dinner party, about Hardy.] 
'The evening was a wild chaos. I tried to drown my cares in drink but it only affected my feet and not my head. Mr Hardy is a very damp young man and dampness I abominate.' No doubt Hardy was nervous and trying too hard, faced with a daughter of the great Thackeray. Her remark was snobbish: a gentleman is not damp. 

page 210 - [Leslie Stephen writing to Hardy, who'd asked his advice on critical reading]:
...'if you mean seriously to ask me what critical books I recommend, I can only say that I recommend none. I think as a critic that the less authors read of criticism the better. You, e.g., have a perfectly fresh and original vein, and I think that the less you bother yourself about critical canons the less chance there is of your becoming self-conscious and cramped. I should therefore advise the great writers - Shakespeare, Goethe, Scott, etc, etc, who give ideas and don't prescribe rules.'

page 228 - [Thomas and Emma finally visit his family.] 
Six adult Hardys and Emma in the cottage meant it was crowded, and you can imagine the men going out to look at the garden together to get away from the women's tongues. 

Page 429 - [after one of Hardy's later poetry books was published to little acclaim (the First World War didn't help)]:
In January 1915 Virginia Woolf sent a letter thanking him for the sonnet on her father Leslie Stephen included in the collection, going on to say that she considered it to be 'the most remarkable book to appear in my lifetime.'  Her singularly enthusiastic tribute has to be put in context: a few days after writing she was overtaken by an acute mental breakdown and became incoherent. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Awesome Gang Interview

An updated version of an interview that first appeared on Awesome Gang...
Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written.
I’m a writer, composer and pianist, as well as being a father of five and grandfather of twelve (with a thirteenth due later this year). Though born in Melbourne, Australia, I’ve lived in Dunedin, New Zealand, most of my life.
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, but only really began to be serious about it in the early 90s, when I took a course that encouraged me to write articles for magazines and newspapers. As a result I had a number of articles published, went on to write a column for a local newspaper for five years, and have been blogging incessantly ever since.
I’ve written three children’s fantasies (for Middle Grade readers) and a nonfiction book based on blog posts I wrote when I was struggling with prostate issues back in 2009.
What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
The latest book one to be published is The Disenchanted Wizard, and it was intended to be the third book in a series of children’s fantasies under the general title of Grimhilderness. In fact it's turned out to be a standalone, with little connection to the previous two books. I'm currently writing a fourth children's fantasy, which is actually going to be number three in the series.
In 2012 I co-wrote the script of a musical called Grimhilda!, and composed the music. Young audience members who attended the show asked: When is the sequel coming out?
So I turned Grimhilda! into a book, and then that was followed by another…and then another.
The original story of Grimhilda had begun way back in the 70s. So it was an idea with a long gestation!
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
Not a single one that I can think of!
What authors, or books have influenced you?
Among many other things, I’ve always been interested in fantasies. I read the Narnia stories way back, and Tolkien, of course (though I found when I read it again a few years ago that it was pretty hard going!) Diana Wynne-Jones’ stories intrigue me: her imagination is huge. I like stories that start out in the ordinary and take off into fantasy, and that’s what my books do. I’ve recently discovered Nate Wilson’s books. He has more imagination than he knows what to do with, I think!
What are you working on now?
As I mentioned above, I’m working on another book in the Grimhilderness series. It's taking some time to complete, as writing is only one of the things I do. I've spent a lot of time working out the plot, writing endless notes and early drafts. I have to get to know the characters and elements of the plot before I can sit down to produce a final draft. It involves a lot of writing, but it’s worth it. Even if I don’t think so at the time (!)
What is your best method or website when it comes to promoting your books?
This has been a process of discovery; I’m finding there are all sorts of sites and options that weren’t available when I started writing.
Most successfully, over the last several months, I've been advertising on Amazon Marketing Services. This has produced more sales than I've had any other way. 
I also use Twitter a lot, am involved in a very helpful Facebook Indie publishers page and two groups run by Brian Meeks - who focuses on the AMS ads. 
Do you have any advice for new authors?
Don’t be satisfied with the first thing you write. Be willing to be critiqued to within an inch of your life. You’ll hate it, but it’s good for you in the long run. I’ve read a number of books since the big ebook revolution and some of them are desperately in need of a firm hand, but plainly haven’t had it. Let someone else in on the book, otherwise – unless you’re a genius – you won’t be putting out your best work.
And keep on writing…
What is the best advice you have ever heard?
You can cut any piece of writing in half without losing what’s best about it. Most of us write too much.
What are you reading now?
Just finished reading The Experiment of Professor Polgas by Sarah Brownlee. Another very imaginative writer. She produces several big scenes in her book and has some strong characters.
What’s next for you as a writer?
Amongst all the other bits and pieces, I’m now close to writing a proper first draft of the new Grimhilderness book. But that will be fitted in with playing for the rehearsals of a production of The Mikado, and for young singers in Competitions next month...and so on.
If you were going to be stranded on a desert island and allowed to take 3 or 4 books with you what books would you bring?
The Bible, because it’s a book that’s not only taught me about the Christian faith, but its words have got me through some dark nights. I’ve memorized a number of passages in it, so even if I lost it, I guess I’d still have some of it in my head. I’d take one of Dickens’ best books, such as Pickwick Papers, or Great Expectations. One of the books by Dale Ralph Davis. He’s one of the most accessible commentators on the Christian faith that I know. And perhaps The Last Battle by C S Lewis. Even though it takes a bit of time to get going, it has the greatest ending of any of the Narnia stories.
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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Story structure is hard work

The last couple of months...

I've been spending what writing time I have on my fourth children's fantasy, so blogging has gone a bit on the back-burner.

The biggest difficulty with this latest book is not only that I'm doing it on my own without the help of my usual co-writer, but that for ages there was a big hole (and I'm talking ginormous) where there should have been the bulk of the story.

The First Act, as you might call it, was mostly fine. In fact it was fine through versions 1, 2 and 3 each of which took a different tack, with a different main character as the focus.

But the Second Act? So so. And the Third? Practically non-existent, except that I had a minuscule idea about how it would finish. Probably.

Because structure is always a bugbear for me, I have to work really hard at it, and I have a brain that says, Nah, let's just give up on that for today, when I've only just sat down to write.

So what made the difference? 

I enlisted some help. First I went back to a book written by Libbie Hawker - Take Off Your Pants! - which I'd read before and hadn't felt was quite as helpful as I'd hoped. However, I persisted with it this time, since it's primarily about structuring, and made some real progress.

Hawker doesn't work to a three act structure particularly; it took me a while to realise that she's focusing on character arc as her main structural approach. Nevertheless it proved useful, because it made me focus on where my main character was going to go as she journeyed through the book.

Then I turned to an old favourite: Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, with its fifteen 'beats' that point out the way in which many movies (and a number of novels) are structured to give the viewer/reader the greatest satisfaction.

Snyder is more of a three act structure man, which is fine. I needed that in conjunction with Hawker's character arc approach.

Now the thing is...

Both these books helped enormously this time round - aided by the fact that I was determined I wasn't going to be beat.

But I need to say that neither of them quite mention the fact that you really have to know quite a lot about your story before you try to work out things like character arcs and fifteen beats.

In spite of the way it reads in the books, you can't actually start out by sitting down and just doing a synopsis. At least I can't. I have to have piles of stuff written in order to know who the characters are, and in order to figure out at least something of what the story is actually about.

Consequently I now have a large bunch of separate files: various incomplete drafts, piles and piles of notes (to the point that no matter how hard I try I can't quite get them in any sort of order) and all sorts of notes on top of notes. What this process does is give me ideas enough to move forward on a synopsis. It stops me from believing that what I've written first time round is going to be enough, and that I need to keep digging deeper and deeper and asking Why until I'm blue in the face.

One result has been that the two main male characters in version one became one main male character in version two who eventually became the sidekick to the female main character - in the current version. Other characters came and went; whole scenes ended up in the bottom of the pile; fantastic plot moments were abandoned.

And then came Janice Hardy...

I pulled together the Hawker and Snyder synopses (such as they were, still incomplete). And then discovered a third book which I hadn't read before: Janice Hardy's Plotting Your Novel [also published as Planning Your Novel].

Hardy provides us with a series of workshops, taking you right back to the beginning, the place where I'd been months before when I was writing drafts and notes galore. You can skip some of the workshops, or you can - as I did - force yourself to answer the questions she provides, and see if there are other things that you should consider. (If it sounds like hard work, it is, but it was also satisfying because of the sense of progress.)

So now I had three 'assistants' on the case, and in spite of my brain threatening overload, I also had an increased sense of where the story was going. And wonder of wonders, as I pulled the various synopses together, I began to see that big hole that had been such a bugbear filling up at last with real content.

The job isn't finished yet. But I now have a real sense that completing a decent synopsis is possible. And once that's on the page, the real - and enjoyable - part of the writing can begin.

To be continued...

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The woman goes fishing, and fishes!

The following column was a result of my wife starting to fish, and catching fish, including a couple of substantial salmon from the Otago Harbour. I haven't been able to verify all the facts in the piece, though several of them can be seen online. 

Fisherwomen. 28 July 1993

I've come across an advertisement for a fishing book which proclaims that the author’s wife goes fishing, and fishes! The sentence speaks of a woman performing a stunt contrary to her nature.

When did fishing become a pastime only the stern a sex enjoyed? Never.

Cleopatra was known as a keen and successful angler. When Mark Antony tried to kid her that he was a good fisherman, she hired a diver to put a salted fish on his line, to the Roman general’s ridicule (or the Roman’s general ridicule).

Documents show Empress Zinga of Japan, who was born in the first century, bending a needle to make it into a hook, using grains of rice as bait, the threads of her garments as a line, and standing in the middle of the river to catch a trout (and catching one).

And one of the first books on angling in English was written (sorry guys) not by a man, but by a nun in a convent: Dame Juliana Berners, Prioress of Sopwell. Her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle was printed in 1496, and contains details about fishing and tackle and the making of flies that only an experienced fisherwoman could know.

Some scattered examples from our own fishing history: the May 1st, 1937, issue of The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette reported that Mrs F.L. Smith beat her husband's catches by 6.81 kilos.

Blue Marlin, courtesy Pixibay
Big deal, you might say, until you realise her total catch between March 19th and April 4th was 11 fish weighing 1304 kg - averaging 118 kilo fish (for those who didn't have their calculators handy). And during two weeks in March, Mrs Ashley Dodd caught three mako and 11 striped marlin, weighing a total of 1648 kg. (She could probably swing a husband over her shoulder too.)

In 1929, in the Bay of Islands, an English ‘girl angler,’ Miss Dorothy Ap Roger, made a name for herself by landing a monster marlin. It was the biggest fish of the day amongst those caught by a dozen anglers.

The girl angler’s line at only been in the water a few minutes when she felt something attacking her bait. She allowed the line to run out some distance then struck. A ‘monster striped marlin’ was hooked.

The marlin weighed in at 171.5 kg, the largest of its kind caught during the season. That's like humping 17 sacks of potatoes from the supermarket at once - without a trolley.

Miss Ap Roger was obviously some ‘girl.’ She showed no surprise at catching this monster, but the reporter couldn't keep his chauvinistic pen from adding, ‘The young lady fished as though she been at it for years, and the onlookers were amazed at the way she handled the rod.’

They shouldn't have been - she was only participating in a sport in which women have long been as able, if not is visible as men.
The world's biggest annual game fishing tournament is held New Zealand's Bay of Islands - for women.

And many overseas fisherwoman are outstanding in their field: Marsha Bierman, from Miami, has landed more than 1000 sailfish and marlin in her 20 year career. She doesn't use heavy rods, reels, or a special fighting chair tilt and her fish. Instead, with harnesses, she practices stand up fishing, using her strength and stamina to bring the fish in.

When it comes to fly-fishing men may be the ones most visible, but United States statistics are proving (horrors!) that they're not as good at it as women. Fly-fishing requires grace and subtlety; women tend to out-fish men at the sport because of their lighter touch. Ouch.

Fish aren't known to be partial as to the sex of the one who hooks them, though certain males think they should be.

Men's attitude problem remains. When a friend of mine put up the sign on her bathroom wall, Women can do anything, it was immediately - and anonymously - altered by one of the three males in her house, to Women can't do anything.

When some males see the phrase Women can fish, these males (whose brain cells otherwise well connected) still say, no they can't.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Covers and paperbacks

It's been a year of biting the bullet.

When I say 'year' I'm including 2018, since that's when most of what I'm going to talk about happened.

Each time since 2014 when I uploaded a new book to Kindle I intended to produce a paperback version as well. And I got myself an account at CreateSpace to do this, but somehow held back from going through with the whole process. Formatting an ebook seemed a piece of cake by contrast with preparing a book for print. The thing that was my main sticking point was sorting out the cover.

Recently, CreateSpace went out of existence and Kindle (KDP) took over the print on demand process. I decided this was it: time to take the plunge. I worked my way through everything that I thought needed to be done and then checked with my older son, who's the IT whiz in our family. Immediately he pointed out a bunch of things that weren't going to look good unless I reformatted and improved the fonts and shifted pages around and got rid of things that weren't appropriate for the paperback version. Phew.

He came over to my house and wrote me out a check list as a reference for when I did the other three books. It proved immensely helpful, and for the most part I managed to reformat the remaining three books on my own. Even doing the covers.

The first paperback, Diary of a Prostate Wimp, was published in the second half of last year, while my wife was in England. The first time we spoke on WhatsApp after I'd published the paperback, she told me she'd ordered a copy. (So at least there was one sale...!)

All the books are now available in the printed version, and it's been encouraging to see the interest in the books as opposed to their electronic cousins.

Having achieved this, I felt it was time to do something about the cover for Grimhilda! The original e-book cover was adapted from the poster for the stage production - Grimhilda! had started out life as a musical. My son and I had sat down one evening, taken the poster version, got rid of some elements, improved others, and generally made it more presentable. No disrespect to the original artist but the poster wasn't up to scratch for the wider world of book covers.

The cover my son and I made was good, but not excellent, but it sufficed for the first four years of the book's life online. I always knew I wanted to redo it, but I never seemed to have the cash in hand to get a good artist (such as the guy who did the original cover for my third book, The Disenchanted Wizard) to make a good job of it.

There was no option: if I wanted a new cover I'd have to do it myself. And early this month (January 2019) I sat down, worked my way through Canva and produced a cover that I was much happier with. It's more striking, looks more like a proper cover (!) and hopefully is more eye-catching altogether.

Grimhilda! new cover
It was made from a variety of elements: the background only came to my attention after I'd tried a bunch of other options, such as finding something on Pixabay. It turned out none of the photographs I looked at there were going to work, but they gave me ideas for what could work.

I settled on the background, and then looked for a graphic that would connect to the title character. There were plenty of these, but most of them didn't belong with the rest of the cover. Thankfully, in the end I found the one of the witch on the broomstick, and she fitted perfectly. On the earlier cover my son had found a similar graphic that he applied over the snowy background as a shadow of the witch flying overhead. Very neat.

Today I revised the cover again...the author name seemed to stick out in a way that wasn't comfortable and the quote at the bottom of the page just cluttered things up - apart from not being readable on anything small.

Hopefully now I'm done with this cover for the time being. Might be time to tackle one of the other ones I'm not so happy about!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Men, do you know you have a prostate gland?

British men largely unaware of the role of the prostate says a heading to a short article I came across today.

I'm not surprised by this in the slightest. It was only when my doctor - some years ago now - suggested having a PSA test regularly that I even knew I had a prostate. Is that possible? Had I been nearly 50 years on this planet without knowing about this vital part of my male anatomy?

Maybe my prostate had been mentioned in passing, but when you have an internal organ that behaves itself and does the job it's supposed to do without quibble, then you pretty much ignore it. We all know we've got hearts, because we can feel them pumping, or because the heart manages to get into all sorts of common expressions: Have a heart, brokenhearted, he's got a big heart, my heart longs for you, and so on.

We know we have a brain, even though we can't feel it, because the same thing applies: the brain comes into our everyday speech, and reinforces its part in our lives. Use your brain, you great useless piece of leftover spittle. 

But the prostate? Off the top of my head, I can't think of any common, everyday expression that involves the prostate. Worse, it's easy to get it mixed up with another word, prostrate, which has nothing to do with it, and which we sometimes use when we're talking about a person lying down. Or prostrating themselves before someone who's their superior. (Not something Western people tend to do least not in public.)

Otherwise the prostate doesn't get a mention, until your PSA climbs the charts (which it shouldn't) and you're sent off to the hospital for a prostate biopsy. A prostate biopsy, for most gentlemen, is not fun, though a friend of mine (who shares my birthday, as it happens) claimed he came through his biopsy without bother. Plainly he's tougher than I am. 

I learned a lot about prostates when I had problems with not being able to pee, and when my PSA count started to skyrocket. I learned more about biopsies when I had one and it caused other problems. Later, at the encouragement of a fellow-sufferer, I wrote a book about it: Diary of a Prostate Wimp. (Which incidentally, is the only book of mine that I can claim has been a bestseller, mainly because it was on Amazon's top twenty list for books relating to Urology a few times...!)

What I'm saying to any male who reads this: be grateful to your prostate. Be grateful that for most of your life it will work perfectly well. Be even more grateful that these days it's possible to have prostate cancer and survive. I know several guys who've been there and are still functioning well.

But guys, if your doctor says to you, we need to keep an eye on your PSA count, make sure you do. It may save your life.

PS: The majority of men who have a PSA test and a biopsy will prove to have no cancer. Cancer is not a given. I didn't have it. 

PSS: Talking about prostrating oneself, in a Korean TV series we watched some while back, the less important employees bowed to their superiors continually. It was quite disconcerting. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Banks and bouncers

The following column originally appeared in Column 8 on the 21st July, 1993. Like a number of my columns, it's a bit of a riff on an idea that drags in a bunch of possibly unrelated issues. The BleedUsSlow Cup (generally known to rugby fans as the Bledisloe Cup.) It's fought over between Australian and New Zealand teams - mostly annually. 

Banks and bouncers

Bledisloe Cup
courtesy Hpeterswald
Some time ago I promised I’d write about banks and bouncers. And seeing a bouncer being choosy about the cup crowd entering his pub doorway last Friday night reminded me. (Here, this should raise my mana a little; I actually watched all of the BleedUsSlow Cup – and got excited about it.)

Have you noticed the new trend in our main shopping area? Everywhere you turn, banks and bars. Both these institutions are eating up retail space, instead of loitering round back streets where they belong.

Furthermore, one bank has turned into a bar, and another bank and bar are cohabiting. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the pre-cup crowd confused one with the other.

That might not be a bad thing: banks could do worse that taking on the look of a bar, and vice versa.

In the matter of bouncers, for instance. When the teller sees someone whose cheques continually bounce come in the door, she just calls on the fullback at the doorway, ‘A moment of your time, Bill.’ And when Bill arrives, ‘Show this bankrupt the street, will you?’

You’d expect bank bouncers to deal with a better class of customer, having none of the confusion which with bar bouncers must contend.

On the surface a bouncer needs nothing more than muscle and an assortment of fierce looks towards unwanted clientele. But discernment is required. The worthy were once distinguishable from the unworthy by their state of dress. Now scruffy and up-to-date are much the same.

The feller who turns up with his shirt hanging out front and back, with baggy pants and no socks – his girlfriend wearing her singlet over her sweat shirt and her hair in three vibrant colours – may be an acceptable customer. Equally you can’t automatically let in the besuited.

This would also apply in a bank, of course. The besuited might be the pauper and the scruff the one with the money.

When bars become like banks they’ll need to install automatic barpersons. We have this in part already, with drink-dispensing machines – the idea just needs a little extension.

Bar personnel do little besides race around all night pouring drinks, grabbing bags of chips and taking money. A modern machine could handle the job easily. (Barmen who lend an ear to garrulous soaks only appear in the movies.)

Automatic barpeople would fit into the walls of your average bar. The customer slots in his bar card with its own PAN (personal alcohol number); the machine pours into his glass the exact amount of liquor the licensee desires – and there’s no problem with change.

Humans might still be seen behind the bar, but their job would no longer be sweaty and hectic.

Banks, on the other hand, need to take over something that’s prospered in bars – live bands.

Instead of piped music, inducing the customer to soporificity, we’d have live bands performing (and beginning to work in the daytime like normal people). They’d probably need to go upmarket, and change their image from ragged and hairy to couth and cleanshaven (I will not be applying).

Bands encourage customers to linger – necessary in the midst of banks’ fierce competition for people’s money. Picture yourself walking into a bank and hearing your favourite band playing heavy metal or rap or string quartets – depending on the kind of image the bank wishes to portray. Isn’t that more exciting than posters full of percentages?

Not only that, customers could relax in banks after work, discussing their finances, and maybe being allowed to count their money. Tellers who’ve been made redundant by automation could return to work as cooks and waiters, and serve meals.

In fact, if banks and bars joined forces and occupied the same buildings, they’d save on overheads, save on staff, and provide interesting alternative venues.

A three sheets in the wind customer might mix up his PIN and PAN and pour dollars into his glass. Bill the Bouncer would take his elbow, guide his feet along the white line, and quietly open an investment account.