Monday, December 30, 2013

The Gravity of Evolutionary Theories

It’s time to tackle here, if only briefly, an issue that tends to make my blood boil: that people do not ‘believe’ in evolution. For what these people laughingly call ‘reasons’ they choose not to accept the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the fact of evolution. It is probably one of the most well-documented phenomena in the whole of science. I’m not going to waste my time arguing the details here, which would not convince these people in any case. No amount of evidence could ever do that. What I am going to take issue with, however, is the argument, made by these people, that evolution is only a theory, and that, therefore, other theories (usually creationism) are of equal standing and should therefore be taught alongside (if not instead of) evolution. This is a complete misunderstanding of what is meant by those who speak about the (or a) theory of evolution.

Let’s get this cleared up once and for all. Evolution is not a theory. Evolution is a well-established and undeniable phenomenon about which certain theories—the best known being Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection—have been proposed, tested and further developed. Darwin and biologists today are not proposing the theory that life forms on this planet have undergone a long process of evolution. This is the given fact. What they are doing is proposing natural mechanisms by which this process occurs. The theory of evolution by natural selection—the survival of the fittest—is one such (well-supported) theory; but other mechanisms are also considered.

When biologists talk about ‘the theory of evolution’ they are doing so in the same way that physicists talk about ‘the theory of gravity’. Gravity is a given, well-known phenomenon, about which we have certain theories. I don’t suppose that many biblical fundamentalists doubt the reality of gravity as a phenomenon. But then again, one can never be sure…

Sunday, December 29, 2013

On Being an A-fée-ist

I have a word of advice for people who do not believe in gods or a god: Don’t define yourself (or let others define you) as an atheist. To do so is to bind yourself too closely (albeit by negation) to a particular belief system.

There are many things I do not believe in, but I don’t define myself or my beliefs in terms of them. For example, I don’t believe in fairies; but I don’t define myself as an a-fée-ist. (See the clever pun there?) Defining myself as an atheist would be like defining myself as a non-Frenchman. It is only one of many things that I am not, so why single that one out for a special mention?

What may be loosely called my atheism is a not particularly helpful and decidedly negative way to describe my position towards the world and my relationship to what may be broadly termed ‘spirituality’. Those who have followed this blog will know that I in fact consider myself to be a very spiritual person, but that this has no connection with religion, no dependence on a god of any kind, no connection with an afterlife, nor anything necessarily to do with a ‘higher’ state of being. It is not even very closely connected with morality or ethics. Spirituality has to do with how the right brain perceives (and sometimes constructs) reality. It has a great deal to do with connections and holistic or gestalt perception. All of this has a perfectly natural explanation, although this in no way invalidates the experience.

The difference really enters in when we begin to interpret these experiences. I would say that this interpretation begins during (and not just after) the experience. The experience is already itself shaped to a large extent by prior beliefs and experiences. Once the conscious process of interpretation has begun, there is a vast gulf between how I understand these experiences and how traditional religious and spiritual systems understand them. And I will object strongly if someone asserts (as happens from time to time) that, ‘see, you do believe in God after all.’ I don’t. Nothing is gained (and much is lost) by applying the word ‘God’ to any part of this experience.

Although I have used the word ‘spiritual’ here, I hesitate about its use, because it is so easily misinterpreted. It carries almost as many unhelpful connotations as the word ‘God’. It is difficult to think of a word that is not similarly tainted or cannot be similarly misinterpreted in the context of this discussion. By the word ‘spiritual’ I mean no more (and, just as certainly, no less) than what I experience when I am moved by a piece of music, a great painting, a wonderful poem or a beautiful sunset. These experiences are ‘transcendent’ (another potentially problematic term) because the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts—the parts that would usually be separated and dissected in a purely reductionist view of reality. This reductionist approach is not wholly wrong; it is simply not wholly right either.

In short, I will not describe myself as an atheist, because to do so is to let theism define me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On the Perils of Emails

This blog is prompted by an email conversation in which I was recently involved, and which included a number of recipients and ‘copy to’ folk. The danger of emails has been pointed out to me more than once. When you write something in an email, even if you are addressing that email privately to one person, there is always the danger that the email will ‘escape’. It could be a deliberate leak, or it could be a simple mistake of sending an email to other people that still contains the email trail. I suspect that many a politician has been caught out by careless words that have escaped in this way. There is also the issue that an email has the potential for immortality. A spoken word, although it cannot be taken back, nevertheless lives on only in people’s memories (unless it is recorded in some way, of course). An email, once sent, cannot be recalled—but nor does it dissolve in the ether.

People also often say of email conversations that the words on the screen can be easily misconstrued, because they are not accompanied by a tone of voice and body language, and because they sometimes lack context. This is true, although I think the spoken word is also very easily misunderstood, and it can be difficult to correct such misunderstandings when the other person is already flouncing around the room and flapping their arms in an indignant frenzy. The advantage of emails, however, is that there is time to carefully consider your words and pause before hitting the send button. There is actually less excuse for writing something inappropriate in an email than for saying something inappropriate in a face to face conversation.

My advice when writing emails is to try to avoid saying anything that you would not want the rest of the world to read, because one day it just might! My other piece of advice is to read over an email very carefully before pushing that send button. There’s nothing worse than the ‘Oh shit’ feeling that descends upon you when you realise that perhaps you shouldn’t have said that!

PS. Happy Holidays and all that stuff, in case I don’t post anything here before then.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Does it grab me?

It is often said, these days, that a book must grab the reader on the very first page, if not from the very first line. It is necessary to draw the reader in immediately. It’s true, of course, that some of the greatest books or bestselling books (by no means the same thing) have very memorable opening lines. There are web pages where you can find lists of these, if you are keen. Of course, what one person considers a brilliant opening line or page, another will consider boring. These lists also tend to be rather short, suggesting that many very great books do not, in fact, have particularly memorable opening lines.

I suppose what is being claimed here—if we don’t take the assertion too literally—is that it is important to get the readers’ attention quickly, to make them interested from the beginning. But how early is early? I suspect that if we are ready to decide after the opening line, the first page, or even the first five pages (let’s say) then we may be depriving ourselves of the pleasure of reading a great many good books. Some books—I would suggest rightly and appropriately—begin at a slow pace. Some really good books even remain at a slow pace throughout! Yes, dare I say it: fast and exciting is not the (only) definition of a good read! And we all know that, really, don’t we? Jane Austen remains one of the most popular authors, even today.

So I am generally prepared to give a book twenty or thirty pages before I decide it’s not for me. And it could ‘not be for me’ for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is not well written; perhaps the story doesn’t interest me; perhaps I don’t like the writing style; perhaps it is too difficult! This cannot be determined, I would suggest, from the first page, let alone the opening line!

Then, of course, there is the other side of the equation: a book may begin brilliantly, but offer nothing in what follows. So, again, I will not decide simply on the basis of the opening line or page that ‘this is for me’, any more than I will decide that it isn’t.

I suspect that our need to be ‘grabbed’ immediately is a further symptom of our society’s need for instant gratification, its quest for a quick fix, and its overall ADHD. We are impatient and we have short attention spans. Sometimes a good book requires patience and a little hard work. A society that lives on tweets and ten second news grabs is unlikely to have the patience to give a book a chance, if the first line doesn’t read like a clever tweet; or if the first scene does not involve big screen action.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On Poetry

Recently I reviewed an anthology that included some poetry. A few weeks ago I edited another anthology that also contained poetry. Not only did this raise the issues, for me, of exactly how to go about editing or reviewing poetry; it raised the more fundamental issue of what actually constitutes poetry.

There was a time when poetry was much more formal than it is today. By ‘formal’ I mean quite literally that poetry adhered to certain specific forms, both in terms of rhythm, line structure and line length. I don’t know much about the technical language. Suffice to say that it was complicated, but also precise. There were also various forms to follow governing the rhyming structure of poetry.

Sometime during the twentieth century at the latest, much of this formalism was abandoned. What took its place was a free form kind of poetry. Not simply blank verse (i.e., non-rhyming), but seemingly possessing little or no formal structure. There may be subtle rules and structures to which poetry continues to adhere, but I suspect that most of us are unaware of them.

Today, when many people write poetry, they either follow a simple rhyming form, with lines that (sometimes) scan; or they write in an entirely unstructured way. While the former is clearly ‘poetry’, I generally find it uninspiring. Choosing a word because it rhymes with another has never seemed to me to be a particularly good criterion. It often leads to bad word choice or very questionable rhymes. The rhythm of such lines (if the author has paid attention to rhythm at all) often seems clunky.

On the other hand, I really doubt that some freeform poetry is really poetry at all.

One does not create a poem
Simply by spreading the words
Across several lines
In a manner
Something like this.

Much freeform poetry seems to be little more than prose with arbitrary line breaks.

So what, for me, are the essentials that differentiate poetry from prose? I would suggest three things:

1.     Words and phrases need to be used in unusual ways, images that jolt us out of our normal level of awareness.
2.     Words need to be placed. By this I mean that there is a reason for ending a line with this specific word rather than another—this may be for rhyming, but also for other purposes. The same is true of the word that starts the line, and, indeed, for the key words within any line.
3.     Lines need to possess some kind of rhythm; not necessarily, these days, any of the precise meters used in the past, but some kind of rhythm and flow, nevertheless. At the very least, lines are broken at that particular place for a reason, perhaps to create suspense, or to generate a specific juxtaposition of ideas.

Some of these elements will be borrowed from time to time in the service of prose. Used together, though, they constitute the minimum necessary before I would regard a collection of words and phrases to be a poem. There may be other elements that I have overlooked here.

People may object strongly to any kind of formalism in poetry. In my discussion here I have tried to keep formalism to a minimum. Nevertheless, if I am going to be asked to edit or critique poetry, I need to use some criteria. Now you know what they are.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Writing Accents

Every person on the planet speaks differently, even though we each share much in common with others who speak our particular language, share the same dialect and have the same accent. The way a person speaks is an essential part of their character; it is understandable when writing that we want to represent that individuality by reproducing these speech patterns. This, however, is quite a challenge. How do I make a character sound Irish without dropping in a ‘To be sure, to be sure’ now and then; or Scottish without the odd ‘Och ay the noo’?

One of the ways in which it is customary to make a character sound uneducated is to drop letters, usually Hs from the beginnings of words and Gs from the ends. ‘This is ’ow it might sound if I wuz talkin’ like that.’ Notice also the subtle alteration in the spelling of ‘was’. I’m sure most writers have used this technique occasionally. The problem is maintaining it for any length of time. How often do I drop a letter? Do I spell ‘going to’ ‘gonna’ all the time, or just occasionally? I remember reading Wuthering Heights in high school and struggling with the speech patterns of the character Joseph. Here’s just a very brief sample:

‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out! Bud yah’re a nowt, and it’s no use talking—yah’ll niver mend o’yer ill ways, but goa raight to t’ divil, like yer mother afore ye!’

This went on for page after page. Maintaining consistently a character’s accent or dialogue is not only very difficult to do, but also makes the text difficult to read.

Of course, part of the problem is that none of us actually speak like this (‘this’ being the words I just wrote). What I would probably have actually said, if I were speaking, was something more like this: ‘’Fcourse, parta the problem is thut nunavusackchilly speak like this.’ All of us actually speak differently from the way words are neatly and systematically written on the page. And all of us speak with an accent of some kind, although to our own ears it might not seem so. So when I choose to represent the speech of a character in a particular way, all I am really indicating is that the character does not speak like me—which is, of course, the way ‘normal’ people speak.

So how do we indicate that a person speaks with a particular accent? One way is actually to inform the reader. Here is Joseph’s speech again, with some interpolation and translation:

‘I wonder how you can fashion to stand there in idleness and worse, when all of them’s gone out!’ said Joseph, although it took me a while to work out exactly what he said. To my ear it sounded like this: ‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out!’ Slowly I became accustomed to the rhythm of his speech. ‘But you’re a nowt,’ he continued, ‘and it’s no use talking—you’ll never mend all your ill ways, but go right to the Devil, like your mother afore you!’

This maintains the archaic forms of words, but without the odd spelling and contractions. Perhaps if someone is speaking with an Irish accent, instead of spelling the words out phonetically—we don’t, after all do that with our own ‘normal’ speech patterns—we might just mention the sing-song lilt of their speech (or something like that).

If someone is speaking English as their second language, with a foreign accent, it’s probably a good idea to avoid caricatures like this, for an Italian accent, for instance:

Are-a you-a going out-a to dinner tonight-a?

Or like this for a German accent:

Vat do you vant to do tonight?

Perhaps a better way of dealing with this is to drop in the occasional foreign word, or have the speaker hesitate as they struggle to find the correct English word. Perhaps they might misuse a word occasionally—people for whom English is not their first language often do not us the correct preposition, or they misuse the definite and indefinite articles. It is important to try to avoid stereotypes and caricatures, however.

There is no perfect and simple solution to the problem of using accents in dialogue. It is something I have struggled with myself—and continue to struggle with. Once you set yourself on that path, however, you may have placed a millstone around your own neck. You may also make life difficult for your readers—and yes, Ms Brontë, I am thinking of you.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Train Ride

Today I thought I would post a short story; not something I do very often. I would be interested in hearing how you respond to it:

A Train Ride

I stand on the platform. It could be anywhere in the world. A pigeon struts, pigeon-toed, around my legs. I am another pillar, holding up the roof, but subject to sudden, inexplicable movements. The pigeon, too, could be any pigeon anywhere. Words float in the air around me in another tongue—not just anywhere, then. The words refuse to stay out there, in the air, and wriggle their way into my ears, into my mind.

The train—I hear it approaching, see its single eye in the darkened tunnel. I am still fixed in place—that pillar. Here I stay. Here the door will roll to a halt. Here is the button, which I push. Air seems to rush into the train, as people rush out from the other side. There is, in general, a predominance of hissing and swishing.

To the right is the vacant seat, into which I fold myself, folding myself yet more tightly around myself, lest I be touched. Sometimes I read, but today I am bookless, Kindle-less. The floor at my feet becomes a refuge for my gaze. I see, mainly, feet. Knee high boots, worn sneakers. I imagine, if I do not precisely sense, their odour. Other odours there are, however. Damp odours. Garlic, too, I think. I become acutely aware of the air I am breathing. Air that others have breathed before me. How much of her, I wonder, am I breathing in. She sits next to me. Her arm and shoulder brush against mine. I cannot retreat. I don’t look at her except fleetingly, brushing her with the periphery of my vision.

A dreamlike state creeps upon me. The world becomes a little fuzzy, sounds a background buzz. Except that some words in English cut through the fuzz. An Australian accent that has the password into my awareness.

“Yeah. Last time I was home I managed to catch up with…” But the rest is lost as the train pulls up at a stop, doors open, letting in air, letting out smells… and people. Did the Australian accent leave? I am not sure.

Within my fuzz I am surprise at how quickly we arrive at the stop before mine. I move my bag slightly, where it rests on the floor between my legs. It is a ritualistic, preparatory move. Also a claim of ownership, as I grasp one of the straps. Lest my bag escape. The world appears, for a moment, like the kind of place in which bags yearn for freedom and make a break for it at the first opportunity. There is another button to push. So I push it. How would it be, to be a button in this world that no one ever took the time to push?

I stand now as the train approaches my stop, swaying a little unsteadily, grasping the handhold. I notice that the train has already discharged most of its occupants. Others also stand ready to disembark. I move against the tide, to the left, which involves side-stepping, this way and that. I do not like being a rock in the stream that divides the flow. Then the way is clear and I make my way—and it is my way, no one else takes this route. I am convinced that this shaves a few milliseconds off the walk from the train to my office. So I walk through the air that I have parted before, many times, re-enforcing my pheromone trail, staking my claim on this small fragment of the universe.

Somehow, I have made it again.

Don't forget to check out my books here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Images of Jesus

Why do most depictions of Jesus look so much like Russell Brand, when they should probably look more like Osama bin Laden? 

People will probably say that I have this the wrong way around: that it is Russell Brand who looks like Jesus. It’s true that Russell Brand looks like Jesus as he is often depicted in religious art. In fact, the historical figure probably looked like neither. He almost certainly didn’t have Max von Sydow’s or Jeffrey Hunter’s baby blue eyes.

Unlike some people, I don’t dispute the existence of an historical figure going by the name of Joshua sometime in the first century of this era, living in the region of Palestine and presenting himself as a religious prophet. He clearly had an impact on people. Since then, of course, the western world has set about reconstructing this figure in its own image. Both the man and his teachings. Joshua, or Jesus if you prefer, was a man of middle-eastern origin, beliefs and appearance. This is probably embarrassing and even offensive to some contemporary Christians.

Let’s just admit that Jesus would be much more at home in a market in Gaza than in a Walmart in Los Angeles or a Coles in Cairns.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The bikies are going to get me!!!

Recently in Queensland, the state government has passed what it considers to be tough ‘anti-bikie’ laws to crack down on what are perceived as criminal bikie gangs. Apparently these are suddenly such a threat to our society that laws which undermine basic human rights are necessary to ‘protect’ us all. Here we go again. Another bunch of unnecessary and draconian laws to protect us from yet another imagined threat. Let’s not worry about real threats, such as those to the environment. Instead, let’s pass dangerous laws that may be populist in the short term, but probably won’t achieve what they aim to achieve, and open the doors for even further human rights abuses in the future.

Oh, I’m sure all Queenslanders feel so much safer now. I’m sure, like me, you have lain awake in bed at night in terror of these bikie gangs.

Governments love to target an ‘enemy’. No doubt it gives them a sense of power. They can claim to be getting tough: doing ‘something’. It is only too easy to play upon people’s fears. And, let’s face it, people seem to scare easily (except about climate change, apparently). The other easy target for governments (including this state government) is paedophiles. I am one of those bleeding heart liberals who happens to believe that even paedophiles have legal (and human) rights; which, of course, will immediately lead to accusations that I am ‘protecting’ them or am in some way defending their actions. No. I am simply pointing out that paedophiles remain human beings. We do what governments and frightened people always do when we label them ‘monsters’: we try to define them as non-human so that we can treat them in any way we wish. Need I point out that this is a slippery slope?

The crimes allegedly committed by members of bikie gangs are already crimes. They are not worse crimes (or in any way different) because they are committed by people who identify with such an organisation. I felt the same way about anti-terrorist laws. As far as I am aware, it was always illegal to set off a bomb in order to kill or injure people. Special laws and penalties are not required to deal with this. It is now, apparently, illegal for any three or more members of an illegal gang to meet together (for any purpose). Too bad if these people also happen to be friends, cousins or brothers. Three brothers, who happen also to belong to such an organisation, can no longer have Christmas lunch together. I presume it has always been illegal to meet together to conspire to commit a crime. That in itself is already, probably, a slightly silly law. Now, of course, the presumption is that whenever any three or more people who belong to such an organisation meet together it is for the purpose of carrying out or planning a crime.

Let me think. Presumably people who don’t belong to any identifiable criminal organisation have in the past, are at present, and probably will in the future meet together to plan nefarious deeds. After all, apparently 99.4% of all crimes in Queensland are committed by people who do not belong to these identified criminal organisations. Are you in a restaurant right now, reading this on your smart phone? Are their three or more people having a meal together right now in that restaurant? Oh my God, are you having a meal with two or more other people right now? What if they (or you) are planning a crime? Any group of three or more people, anywhere, anytime, might be planning a crime! Oh my God! Government, please step in and protect me! Let’s make it illegal for three or more people to meet together anywhere, anytime. That should make me safe!

This is, of course, ridiculous. Or is it? There are reasons why we protect the right of legal assembly; and reasons why governments past, present and future are suspicious of such rights. All kinds of human rights abuses can be ‘justified’ in the name of protecting us. Governments with too much power—as Queensland’s government does have right now, without an effective opposition and without an upper house of review—seem only too quick to abuse that power. 

I would rather be accused of being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’—and even actually be one—than stand by and watch our rights eaten away in the name of ‘sensible’ and ‘appropriate’ measures designed to ‘protect’ us. I suspect we are more often in need of protection from governments than by them.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sand City Murders by MK Alexander - a Review

Sand City Murders is a mystery/crime novel, with a time travel twist. It is narrated in the first person by Patrick Jardel, a reporter with a small town newspaper, the Sand City Chronicle. He becomes involved in the investigation of a series of strange murders in the town. The investigation becomes international when the Dutch detective, Tractus Fynn, is brought into the investigation because of a connection with similar crimes overseas. It soon becomes apparent to Patrick that all—and particularly Fynn—is not what it seems. Fynn slowly reveals himself to have the ability to travel through time and alter past events, and Patrick himself discovers that he is unique (apparently) in being able to recall the previous timelines, although the present is now altered. Along the way it becomes clear that a shadowy figure, whom Fynn calls ‘Mortimer’, may be behind these murders, and that this Mortimer is also a time traveler, and Fynn’s arch-enemy or nemesis.

There is a certain corniness to this plot, which may be intentional, paying homage to detective fiction of the past, but also, perhaps, to more recent television interpretations of these. The figure of Fynn reminded me of the recent interpretation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in the current ITV production, Poirot, as portrayed by David Suchet. Fynn is slightly (and somewhat indeterminately) foreign, somewhat pompous and markedly old-fashioned. He is meant to be Dutch apparently, yet, for some reason, refers to young women as ‘Mademoiselle’, blurring his nationality to some extent.

The plot itself is necessarily complicated and, I might say, almost indeterminate. This is because the present—due to Fynn’s and Mortimer’s messing with the past—is in constant flux. Who has been murdered, who works where and does what—these things can change within a few pages. This means that minor characters in the story are difficult to pin down: today, they are not who they were yesterday. The major characters, though, are reasonably firm, Patrick, Fynn and the main local detective on the scene, Durbin. Patrick’s growing confusion and the gradual disintegration of his concept of reality and his trust in the world around him are well portrayed. This also provides for some nice moments of humour. I was a little less sure about Fynn. In particular, his foreignness seems to come and go somewhat. Mortimer (when his identity is finally revealed) turns out to be something of a comic book character: rather stereotypically evil. The motivation for his personal vendetta against Fynn remains unclear to me.

In any story involving time travel, there are always going to be problems with the plot. Explaining the ‘rules’—why this happens, why this doesn’t, how this or that is accomplished—will always leave plenty of scope for criticism. For the purpose of such a story I am generally happy to ‘suspend my disbelief’ in these cases. The author here makes a valiant effort at making it all plausible—and, of course, fails miserably in the attempt. That’s okay. What bothered me slightly more was that he spent too much time trying to explain the rules to the reader, via conversations between Patrick and Fynn. There were too many such conversations, none of which really served to clarify the matter or further the plot. I was also puzzled by the introduction of another element into Patrick’s character, namely, his apparent total ignorance regarding modern icons such as Superman, Popeye and the Flintstones. We are informed that Patrick possesses no television, but this is not enough to account for such ignorance. These little hints were intriguing and amusing, and I eagerly awaited the explanation for this, or the revelation of their significance for the plot. Neither eventuated. Or perhaps I missed something here.

It is clear that the author intends this to be the first in a series of novels, with Tractus Fynn as the main protagonist, and Patrick as his narrator/sidekick (à la ‘Watson’). I would be a little concerned that the motif—crime occurring; Fynn flashing back to past to undo crime (thus changing the present); Mortimer flashing back to do it all again—could become tedious very quickly. Subsequent volumes could end up being nothing more than minor variations on the theme. I await the sequels with interest.

I might just mention that there were a number of technical issues with the book. Particularly early on, the author seemed to have lost control of the tense in which he was writing. Happily, this settled down after a while. There were also a large number of typographical and grammatical errors, which I stopped counting after a while. Some of these errors really jarred: ‘once and a while’ instead of ‘once in a while’; ‘gossip-and-chief’ rather than ‘gossip-in-chief’; similarly ‘editor-and-chief’ rather than ‘editor-in-chief’. The author repeatedly wrote ‘in the knick of time’ rather than ‘in the nick of time’. This was unintentionally amusing. The author also frequently wrote ‘maybe’ instead of ‘may be’. I would encourage the author to work hard to avoid so many issues in subsequent volumes.

All in all, this in an enjoyable and entertaining book. The overriding concept is interesting and provides scope for some interesting stories. There is also the possibility that this will quickly lose its novelty value. To this volume I give four stars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Trimming the Fat

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart. – Mark Twain

For the record, I do not subscribe to that school of writing, inspired by contemporary journalism, that insists on everything being pared down to the bare minimum. I enjoy a well-used, well-placed adjective or adverb. I like to wax lyrical on occasion. As with everything in the art of writing, however, the secret is in choosing the time and place. Very often, less will be more.

Many writers (myself very much included) simply use too many words. Consider the following passage from a one-time NYT best seller:

Somehow, Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct now overruling his sedatives. As he clambered awkwardly out of bed, a searing hot pain tore into his right forearm. For an instant, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him, but when he looked down, he realized his IV had snapped off in his arm. The plastic catheter poked out of a jagged hole in his forearm, and warm blood was already flowing backward out of the tube.

Opinion will vary about this, but let’s see if I can eliminate a few unnecessary words here:

Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct overruling his sedatives. As he clambered out of bed, a searing pain tore into his forearm. Briefly, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him; then he realized his IV had snapped off. The catheter poked from a jagged hole in his forearm, warm blood flowing from the tube.

Eighty-two words have become sixty-one words. In this short passage I achieved a 25% reduction in word count without, I would suggest, any loss of information or impact. I might even argue that the impact is greater in the second version. If only this practice had been applied to the entire book!

As an editor, I will always strive to make the writing tighter and more concise, without any loss of essential information, and without affecting the impact of the writing. We tend to use auxiliary words when they are not really necessary. Why write, for example, ‘he began to stand up’, when all we really mean is ‘he stood’? By all means use ‘he began...’ if the action is interrupted, and this is important to the story. So: ‘He began to stand, but a firm hand kept him in place.’ Even here ‘up’ is redundant. Avoid phrases such as: ‘he tried to go as far as he could.’ Presumably he actually went as far as he could: the trying is redundant. Unless you have a specific reason for using the imperfect tense, use the perfect tense: ‘He watched television’ rather than ‘He was watching television’. Is it really necessary to write: ‘He opened the box and a smile rapidly grew across his face’, when ‘He opened the box and smiled’ will do the job? Yes, sometimes you will want to wax lyrical; but choose the moment carefully. Don’t squander this creativity on less important passages.

Having written for scientific journals, in which every unnecessary punctuation mark is ruthlessly excised, I have become very efficient at trimming the fat. Even so, it often takes others to point out the fat I have overlooked in my own work. Sometimes ‘the fat’ may be a precious aspect of our creativity; most often it isn’t.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go through this blog and trim it of its unnecessary fat of which, no doubt, there is an abundance.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Two clichés about ‘good’ writing

‘Show, don’t tell!’
‘Find the conflict!’

These are two of the clichés concerning writing that you will hear, these days, at almost any writing workshop, at almost any meeting of writers, and on almost any blog devoted to writing. Because they have become clichés we have reached the point when we need to stop saying them. It is time to ask again: What do they mean? Are they even true?

I wrote in an earlier blog about ‘Show, don’t tell’, and I won’t repeat here what I said there. Francine Prose suggested that ‘show, don’t tell’ was ‘bad advice often given to young writers’  (Prose, Francine 2006. Reading Like a Writer. HarperCollins. pp. 24–25). One writer described this cliché as ‘the great lie of writing workshops’. Both of these are reactions against such advice being given without any real attempt to understand or explain what is meant by either ‘show’ or ‘tell’, and without any consideration of the appropriate context in which to use either. Both showing and telling are necessary when writing. Showing is best used when, as a writer, you want to take the time to dig deeper into a scene or moment, which you will probably want to do at key points in your story. Such writing necessarily uses more words and slows down the pace. To do this all the time would result in a very, very long novel (Ulysses?). Could this be why so many writers no longer seem able to tell a compelling story in a single, reasonably sized volume? Is there too much (boring and irritating) showing going on?

‘Find the conflict’ is a concept that seems to derive from journalism. Conflict sells newspapers. And perhaps this journalistic style is invading too much the world of the author. Yes, conflict is interesting. Yes, conflict can generate dramatic moments in a story. But it is not, surely, the only way to generate either interest or drama. It would not be difficult to point to dramatic scenes in novels that do not involve conflict. However, I can almost hear the indoctrinated screaming at me: ‘But that is conflict’, regardless of the non-conflictual example I might choose. They have simply become so indoctrinated that they naturally interpret anything which is dramatic or interesting as necessarily reflecting some kind of conflict. This raises the other major point, namely that conflict is a very broad term, and, as such, loses its usefulness as a guide to writing. Furthermore, conflict can, itself, be either interesting or uninteresting, dramatic or undramatic. It is not, therefore, conflict per se which will make your story or novel interesting or dramatic. To suggest so is just another quick, easy and lazy way of ‘teaching’ about writing. 

There is, of course, a grain of truth in these clichés, as in all clichés. A cliché is called such, however, when it has ceased to say anything really interesting or useful. I think we are at that point with these particular phrases. They no longer say anything very interesting or useful. It is time to dig deeper and resume thinking, rather than repeating these phrases in parrot-like fashion.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

'What are your books about?'

This is a question that I am asked all the time. Natural enough, I suppose, but surprisingly difficult to answer. I can’t provide a nice, simple, straightforward reply: ‘My books are about gay vampires in the Royal Canadian Mounties,’ I cannot say. Not that I have anything against gay folk, vampires, Mounties, or any combination thereof. Even if, one day, I write a book about gay vampires in the Mounties, I hope that not all of my books would be about them. That’s the first problem: my books aren’t all about one thing. Hopefully my books are all about different things.

The best way I have of answering this question, concerning what my books are about, is this, and it may not satisfy the questioner: My books are less about the things that happen to people, than about the things people do. And:  My books are less about the things people do, than about the people who do them. So if I were to write a book in which an earthquake in Sicily were to feature prominently, I would still be reluctant to say that my book was ‘about’ an earthquake in Sicily. It would be about some of the people who experienced this event. The event is almost irrelevant. It could just as easily be the death of the family dog as an earthquake that kills thousands. This, I guess, is what I mean when I describe my books as ‘character driven’. I am interested in exploring human nature and human reactions. And as most of us are more likely to experience the death of a family pet than a catastrophic earthquake, I am more likely to write about the death of the family pet.

For all of our great anthropological, sociological and psychological advances, human beings remain, in my opinion, largely a mystery. Not only do you remain a mystery to me, but I remain a mystery to me. Contrary to Star Trek’s claim, space is not the final frontier.  We are. You and I.

When you read, you may not be looking to explore this frontier. You may be in search of escapism and adventure. By and large, you won’t find that in my books. There are plenty of authors writing books like that. By all means read them. I read some of them myself. But if you are interested in exploring with me this final frontier, which I think is every bit as interesting and exciting as an alien invasion or a terrorist threat (and much closer to home for most of us), then you might just like what I write.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Novel, Life Drawings, available NOW.

This is just a brief note to let you know that I have released my latest novel today: Life Drawings.

Tom and Diane are two young misfits who embark upon a timid relationship. Supported by friends and family, harassed by an increasingly disturbed Anglican priest, they begin an exploratory journey, discovering themselves and each other. But a dark secret from Diane's past is slowly closing in on them.

Do Tom and Diane have a future together?

Who will live, and who will die?

You can find details of where to purchase it here

I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Will the US never learn?

The world is once again facing a situation in which (mainly) the United States is threatening to take military action against another country. Let’s be clear, here. This is a matter for the entire world not just the US. The US has no right to set itself up as the sole judge, jury and executioner when it comes to world affairs. There is, of course, talk of ‘surgical strikes’ etc. etc. There are commitments to avoid the mistakes of the past. Well, the first mistake of the past to avoid is that of unilaterally launching military strikes. Does anyone believe that such an action will be as straightforward as is claimed? Does anyone believe that it will achieve the alleged objectives? Does anyone believe that such an action would not have unintended and unpleasant consequences?

I’ve no doubt that I will be shouted down here as being naive. And I can also only claim to have a very limited understanding of International Law. But it seems to me that if the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in this civil war, then it is in violation of International Law. If there is, indeed, strong evidence that Assad is guilty of this crime, then, instead of the first response being to launch a military strike, let the first action be to charge this man accordingly and haul his ass (or arse for Aussies and Brits) to the Hague. Of course, it may not be possible to actually arrest him; of course it may never be possible to actually bring him to trial. So let’s try him in absentia. Let’s at least consider the legal options first!

What seems to be happening at the moment is that the threat of military action by the US is already doing more harm than good. It is forcing millions more people across the borders of Syria into neighbouring countries than the civil war itself. It is generating posturing and threats from the Syrian regime and its allies. It is giving rise of talk of a ‘third world war’. 

President Obama, you do not get to decide the fate of this world. Stop your blustering and posturing. Take legal (rather than illegal) action.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: Enigma Black, by Sara Furlong-Barr

At an unspecified time, presumably in the not too distant future, the United States is rocked by a series of terrorist acts. This gives the president at the time the opportunity to secure his grip on power, enforcing a curfew, being granted a third consecutive term in office, and gradually curtailing civil liberties. Totalitarianism slowly closes its grip on the nation, all under the pretext of keeping the people safe. The perpetrator of these terrorist attacks is, apparently, an almost superhuman figure who comes to be known simply as ‘the Man in Black’. Among the victims of these attacks were the parents and brother of Celaine Stevens. Ten years later, slowly recovering from this trauma, Celaine is beginning to build a life for herself. She has a good job in a bank, dear friends, and the love of her life, Dr Chase Matthews.

Suddenly, into this life, steps a strange figure, Blake, offering Celaine the opportunity to gain the revenge for which she has always longed. In order to combat the Man in Black, the government has begun a research program to develop a team of ‘superheroes’. With one of these heroes having recently been killed, Blake recruits Celaine to become his new partner in this endeavour. To do so, however, she must leave behind the new life she has built for herself and disappear. There follows the story of Celaine’s training and development as a ‘superhero’, and her subsequent missions with Blake.

This is the first part of a trilogy, so although there is action here, there is also a sense in which this volume is setting the scene and preparing the ground for what is to come. 

The story is told partly in the first person from Celaine’s point of view, and partly in the third person. This could potentially lead to confusion, but Ms Furlong-Burr actually handles this quite well: it is always clear when the perspective changes. Celaine’s character is well-developed, but I didn’t exactly warm to her. Although the author does a valiant job of taking us through the anguish of Celaine’s decision to leave her life behind, I wasn’t quite convinced that she would do this so readily on the basis of the fairly flimsy and fragmentary description of what, exactly, she was committing herself to become. Other characters are fleshed out to varying degrees. I’m not exactly sure why, but I never quite became emotionally invested in them. This may have something to do with the writing style, which lacks a certain economy. Consider a sentence such as this, from Chapter One, which describes a character’s reaction to the gambling machines in a casino:

On top of the shrill, deafening noises emanating from them, he found himself having to shield his eyes away from the flashing lights the ones at this particular casino seemed to favor.

Personally I find this too verbose. A more succinct, punchy style would help to bring me closer to the action, and closer to the emotions of the characters. The action scenes and fight scenes were among the better written sections; the quieter moments were perhaps those when wordiness intruded on intimacy.

The overall scenario for this story—the incremental loss of freedom in the name of ‘security’—is frighteningly plausible. It is also not difficult to buy into the conspiracy elements. As concerns the details of the plot, there were a few that bothered me. However, I was prepared to overlook most of these, as what action/adventure book or movie does not have some fuzzy plot moments? Having said that, I was not at all sure why an increase in the body’s levels of adrenalin (which is how these people are engineered into superheroes) would enable a human body to impact a concrete wall at very high velocity, leaving the body unharmed but the wall dented. I guess a certain level of implausibility is inevitable when we are dealing with stories about people with superhuman abilities.

Although I was not aware of a huge number of typographical errors in the text, some of those that I did notice were clangers: for example, the use of the word ‘varietal’ when the context made it pretty clear that the author meant ‘veritable’—this happened more than once. There were also several other incorrect words (eg. ‘decent’ for ‘descent’, ‘raucus’ for ‘ruckus’).

As the first in a trilogy, it is difficult to rate this. I would like to see what comes next, before giving a definitive opinion. However, on its own merits it rates around three stars. Let’s hope that Ms Furlong-Burr can deliver at least four stars next time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Australian Election, 2013: The choice that really isn’t

I’m afraid it’s time to reflect once more about the sad state of politics in Australia. I’m not interested in the personalities of the leaders of the main political parties. Do I really care if one or both of them are occasionally cranky? Some of the greatest leaders and politicians in the history of the world had personalities that made it difficult to be in the same room with them. Who cares! What I really care about is whether our leaders have a creative vision. The most creative, visionary people in the world, I suspect, are often proper bastards. It goes with the territory. They are also people who are prepared to take risks and take a stand, even if it is unpopular.

Frankly, I don’t even care about huge budget deficits. Robert Menzies was a conservative politician who was prime minister of Australia for a total of eighteen years through the fifties and sixties. Not once did any of his governments deliver a budget surplus. Once upon a time (in a galaxy far, far away) governments sought to improve the life and well being of the people of the nation for which they took responsibility; and they didn’t depend on ‘market forces’ alone to achieve this. In my opinion, the history of the last fifty years is ample proof that market forces do not, of themselves, make this world a better place, and often make it worse. ‘Growing the economy’ simply doesn’t cut it!

We are told that we have a choice in this election, a choice between two visions for the future of this nation. I see a vision from neither of the leaders of the major parties. All I see are managers, potential managers, not visionaries (their other main concern being, of course, to get elected). They are merely quibbling about the details. Here’s a thought. If you were to pop all of our politicians from the two major political parties into a large hat (Bob Katter must have a spare one somewhere), then draw them out one by one and assign them randomly to one of those parties, would we actually notice any difference? I suspect not. This is why many people will no doubt vote for one of the minor parties, or vote informally. We are totally and completed deluded if we believe that either of the major parties present us with a real choice. 

There is just over a week to go to the election as I write this, and it is all pretty depressing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The New Novel: Life Drawings

Within the next two or three weeks I hope to release my new novel, Life Drawings. Like all my novels, it is a story about real people in real situations. I love exploring what it means to be a human being. It is always my aim to write ‘truth’. A truth, not the truth. I love reading science fiction and fantasy. Although the best of these also reveal some kind of truth about us as a species, and each of us as individuals, they also allow us to escape our everyday reality. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) that is where most of us spend most of our time. I am grateful that I have not faced any major catastrophes or tragedies in my life, at least so far. I am grateful for that because ordinary, day to day life is generally enough of a challenge. In this novel, as in my earlier work and as, I hope, in books yet unwritten, I seek to shed just a little light, on just one little corner, of human life.

I have prepared the following brief blurb for the book:

Tom and Diane are two young misfits who embark upon a timid relationship. Supported by friends and family, harassed by an increasingly disturbed Anglican priest, they begin an exploratory journey, discovering themselves and each other. But a dark secret from Diane's past is slowly closing in on them. 

Do Tom and Diane have a future together? 

Who will live, and who will die?

For me, there is as much tension and suspense in wondering what will be said next in a conversation, in wondering whether two people will make it together, as there is in wondering whether Bruce Willis will again foil the bad guys; or in wondering whether Robert Langdon will again solve the mystery, just in the nick of time. More, actually, since we pretty much know the outcome of those scenarios from the beginning. And because, although I am probably not going to be called upon to save the world (again), I probably will be expected to engage in another conversation sometime soon! 

So there it is: the first little taste of what is to come. And below, also, is a first glimpse of the cover (or what probably, may, could be, will be the cover). Stay tuned for more news!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Rudd-Abbott Debate

The rest of the world (and probably most of Australia, too) probably doesn't care about the political debate between the current Australian Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader which took place last night here in Australia. So this blog is probably just me, shouting into the ether. It will no doubt sink without a trace. But there is so much to say about it, that I refuse to keep quiet, whether anyone bothers to read this or not.

Who Won?
This, of course, is one of the big questions that everyone wants to ask (and answer). I thought that the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was the clear winner. He spoke with a much greater command of the facts, and with much greater authority. I think he made a mistake repeating the 'GST scare'. I don't think anyone buys this. That lost him points in my book. But Mr Abbott, the Opposition Leader, seemed to have nothing more to say than the usual slogans. Rudd may also have lost points for using notes which, apparently, was against the 'rules'. More about that later.

Most of the polls I have seen gave Rudd the edge in the debate. An ABC Twitter poll, run for 30 minutes immediately following the debate, had Rudd ahead by 72% to 28%. I have seen no subsequent mention of this. On 'average'—although how you actually average such polls needs to be explained—Rudd seemed to win. So why did the headlines all say it was a draw? But what is one to make of such polls anyway?

Did Rudd Cheat?
Unfortunately, the actual content of the debate was almost completely lost, because the headline of almost every web page and every newspaper ran with the 'Rudd cheats' line. Apparently the rules agreed to by both parties precluded the use of notes. Did Rudd simply disregard these rules? Was he given the wrong advice? Why did no one prevent him from using the notes on the night? Whatever the answer to these questions, I suspect it cost Rudd dearly, since the issue completely dominated the news. It seems to have been, at the very least, a tactical mistake.

Notes or No Notes
The more important question, it seems to me, is whether this is a sensible requirement. My answer to that is a most definite NO. There are two important points to make. First, no leader can be expected to be completely on top of every issue and every policy that could be raised in such a debate. It is ridiculous to expect them to be so. This is why we have a cabinet of ministers, with advisers. A leader has to delegate, and be prepared to let others make important decisions, because they are in full possession of the relevant information.

Second, in a debate such as this, what do we, the public, want from our leaders and aspiring leaders? Do we want well-considered responses, backed up with accurate information (notes) or off-the-cuff, ill-informed, generalised slogans (no notes)? I know that I want the former. 

A debate such as this only serves to encourage slogans and sound bites. Let's do better than this. For the next debate I strongly suggest that the rule about no notes be abandoned. If it is not, then I strongly encourage both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader to break the rule. Let's have an informed debate. And please let's stop expecting our politicians to know everything about everything. It is simply ridiculous.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Asylum Seekers

Those of you living in Australia will certainly be aware of the issue of asylum seekers travelling from Indonesia to Australia in barely seaworthy vessels. Many hundreds of lives have been lost as a result of this very risky strategy. I'm not sure how widely this issue is reported overseas. I know that other countries face their own issues with asylum seekers. The issue is extremely politicised and polarises the Australian population. Politicians are tempted to propose what they perceive to be potentially vote-winning hardline policies. Many people in our society seem to expect a quick fix to this worldwide problem.

At the end of 2010 there were approximately 15.4 million refugees around the world. Different sources provide different figures for this, but let's be clear that it is a great many people. If the Australian Human Rights Commission is to be believed, this number has been falling over the last few years as several million people have been repatriated. Let's be clear that 'refugee' and 'asylum seeker' are not synonymous. Many asylum seekers are not, finally, granted refugee status. It is difficult to find reliable figures for the total number of displaced persons; and even the 'official' sites do not always seem to maintain a clear distinction between the number of asylum seekers and the number of 'genuine' refugees. There may be as many as 43.3 million 'displaced persons' around the world.

OK. So we have established that the whole asylum seeker/displaced person/refugee issue is huge, and possibly intractable, unless we think we can suddenly fix all the many problems that force people to leave their homes. There are many reasons for this, of course, among them: war, famine, persecution, flood, and so on.

The main point I want to address here is what seems to me to be the incredibly narrow definition of refugee according to the UNHCR. Here it is: A refugee is someone who,

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country...

So someone fleeing their country because of war, famine, flood or any other reason that does not include this element of persecution, can never be considered a refugee under the guidelines of the UNHCR. This seems to me to be a ridiculously narrow definition of refugee given the present economic, political and environmental state of the planet. It was devised at a time when it was necessary to protect certain ethnic and religious groups from persecution. This need remains. But it seems extraordinarily lacking in compassion to refuse refugee status to someone who flees their country because it is being torn apart by civil war, or because it is no longer able to provide enough food for its population, or because (as could happen in the future) it disappears under the rising ocean. 

Australia, as a signatory to the Refugee convention, is only under an obligation to grant asylum to those who meet this very strict definition of refugee. Does not compassion demand more of us as a nation? Rather than seeking to narrow the eligibility of the selection criteria, don't we have at least a moral obligation to broaden them? I am not suggesting that Australia goes it alone down this path. But there is talk of revising the Refugee convention, which, after all, was put in place to deal with a fairly specific issue at the time. Let's not be fooled, though, into thinking that this will in some way diminish the problem. The only compassionate and humanitarian way in which the convention can be revised is by broadening the definition of refugee to reflect the current state of the world. This will mean that more, not fewer, people will need to be granted asylum. At the moment we are not even scratching the surface.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: The Cat Did It by Claude Beccai

This is the story of a year in the life of Clara, a seventy-something-year-old woman, widowed, living alone, struggling to make ends meet. It tells how her life is changed by the arrival of a cat on her doorstep. The cat, not so very important in itself, is the catalyst that brings into Clara's life a crowd of new people, and triggers a series of events, some dramatic, some not so. There are elements of the thriller, the crime novel and the real life drama here, although the novel does not finally settle into one genre rather than another.

There is something very endearing about Clara. The story is told in the first person and largely in the present tense, from her point of view. The reader is invited into her inner life and struggles, as well as to witness the events which crowd this year of her life. She is a spunky, courageous, slightly unconventional woman, who enjoys her solitude, but, ultimately, comes to value the unusual people that the cat, directly or indirectly, introduces into her life. There is Cynthia, the aging, wealthy many-times married socialite, and Mackey, her equally aging gay friend. There is Tony, a sophisticated business man, whose business is mostly illegal and somewhat dangerous. There is Robin, the hapless son of Clara's late husband, of whose existence she previously had no knowledge. And there is the Native American family, mother, father and two children, together with their other relatives, who adopt Clara as their own.

During this year Clara witnesses a gangland shooting, becomes a 'mule' within Tony's organisation, and finds herself the recipient of unexpected financial resources from a variety of sources. Clara's narration of these events and the insights she gains into herself are told with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. The story itself relies a little too much on coincidence for my taste. It loses steam in places. I was also unconvinced by the way in which Clara became so trusting of certain people so quickly. There is a slightly chaotic and seemingly random element to the narrative at times, which could be explained in terms of the narrator's personality, but I suspect is related more to that of the author. While this chaos worked well sometimes, there were occasions when more discipline would have helped the telling of the story. There is a kind of stream of consciousness which needed to be reined in from time to time. The story needed more structure and discipline in the telling. Sometimes the words seem to be rushing onto the page. Grammatically this is reflected in numerous run-on sentences and comma splices. I think that some of the typographical errors might also be attributed to this uncontrolled gushing forth. There were, overall, too many grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors in the book. I gather that the author's first language is French rather than English, so this may account for some of the errors.

In summary I was impressed by the enthusiasm and energy of the writing, reflected also in the character of Clara, but this was marred sometimes by a lack of discipline and structure: the balance was just not quite right. I give The Cat Did It three stars.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Person Point of View

First person narrative seems to be very popular at the moment, and I wonder why this is. For me, it raises several issues that I have been wrestling with for some time.

When an author chooses to write a novel in the first person, they are committing themselves to maintaining the voice of that person throughout the entire story. This may be difficult to sustain. Failing to do so leaves the work seriously flawed. However, succeeding may not lead to great results either. As the reader, I may become bored with the tone, bored with the character, bored with this single point of view.

With first person narrative the reader only gets to see, hear, know and experience what the narrator sees, hears, knows and experiences. It is sometimes argued that this is a good thing in thrillers and mysteries, and it may be so. First person involves us directly in the story, seeing it as it unfolds for the narrator, experiencing it as they do. The disadvantage, however, is that it is not possible to say something like this: 'Behind him, the figure moved from the shadows.' Unfortunately, he can never see what is behind him. For the reader I would suggest that seeing something the character does not see actually adds to the suspense.

Sometimes I also like to write detailed descriptions of a new scene. When this is done in first person, it always seems somewhat artificial, as people seldom observe things so closely. It is also nice to be able to describe the actions or appearance of characters in a way that they would rarely do themselves. Consider a passage such as this:

His eyes darted from side to side. He fiddled nervously with the toggle of his jacket, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

How would I write that from a first person POV and reproduce the same effect? This simply does not sound right:

My eyes darted from side to side. I fiddled nervously with the toggle of my jacket and beads of sweat formed on my forehead.

It is difficult to imagine a person thinking about themselves in this way.

Finally, I wonder, sometimes, whether first person narrative is used to cover poor writing and poor grammar. When using first person I can blame these things on the narrator. I can claim that it is an integral part of their character. Effectively, the entire novel becomes direct dialogue, and so the stylistic rules that apply to this must apply to the narration too. How do I, as an editor, know when to correct bad grammar in a story with first person narration? Perhaps this is just the way the narrator speaks. The flip side of this is that as a writer I am limited by the character's knowledge and abilities. I can't write: 'The street was lined with Dahlias' if my character has no idea what a Dahlia looks like. 

It may be that these issues simply mean that it is a greater challenge to write using first person narrative, since the story has to be told well and effectively within these somewhat narrow restrictions. Perhaps I have not yet mastered these skills. On the other hand, I believe that all of the advantages of first person narrative can also be achieved by creatively using third person POV. I certainly feel that third person POV gives me much more freedom and scope as a writer. I would love to hear from others about which point of view they prefer to use and why. I would also love to hear people's opinions about why first person narration seems to be so popular at the moment. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Personal Update

I confess that I have been neglecting this blog a little of late. Partly this is due to a lack of inspiration. Partly it is because I have been devoting more of my time to pushing some of the social networking further. Twitter has been ticking over quite nicely for me for a while now. Facebook I have always struggled with: I think it is extremely user unfriendly. Nevertheless, I have been working to build my profile and following there. In addition to my main, personal page, I now have pages for both of my published novels, as well as for my business All-read-E. I am slowly accumulating ‘likes’, although quite what the purpose and value of these are continues to elude me. I have also dramatically increased the number of connections I have on LinkedIn. I have also been building a little on Pinterest. For some reason, Goodreads suddenly seems to be building itself.

All of these activities consume an enormous amount of time, and they drag my focus away from writing, whether that be here or in my novels. I have been struggling for inspiration there, too. Whether all of this effort actually serves any useful purpose, I am still unsure.

Quite pleasingly, visits to this blog continue to tick over, partly, I’m sure, because of these efforts in other social networks. It is nice to see people visiting and commenting, and even following.

I am still reading a great deal, and I will be reviewing another self-published book shortly. I am also following with considerable interest the political developments here in Australia, as we approach an election.

So, all in all, I am quite busy. Consider this blog a kind of personal update on my current activities and state of being. In the meantime, I await a moment of inspiration so that I can blog about something other than my very ordinary and rather humdrum existence!

Finally, here are some links to my activities on all these social network sites if you are interested in connecting with me in any of these forums:

Facebook (Maybe they’ll remember me):