Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: 'A Yellow-Winged Stranger' by Imran Usman

This is an interesting book and worth persisting with, despite the flaws that I will mention in a moment. It is difficult to allocate it to a genre. I suppose it fits into the ‘literary fiction’ catchall, but that doesn’t say much. There is almost an air of magical realism about the book. I say ‘almost’, because the elements that contribute to this impression turn out to have a logical explanation: for example, a prisoner finding writing upon the wall of a prison cell that relates directly to his own life. For a moment the laws of nature appear fragile. Almost.

The story begins with a family situation, Howard and his parents, which ends with a death. This then segues into the trial of a young man, Ethan, for murder; he is suspected of being a notorious serial killer. The connection between these two parts of the story is not immediately obvious. This then segues into the story of Jack, which is written by Jack himself on the walls of Ethan’s cell. This, then, becomes a first person narrative, whereas the surrounding story is in the third person. Again, the connection of this story with the other stories is not immediately apparent, but gradually emerges. This is a very successful and clever device, despite the apparent implausibility. Then the different strands of the story begin to interact and are skilfully woven together. Even minor characters in the story—a lawyer, a policeman, a forensic investigator—find their place in the back story that emerges.

This is cleverly done, and I think it works, although I did at times find myself a little confused, wondering if the ‘Matt’ (for example) mentioned at this part of the story was the same as the ‘Matt’ mentioned earlier. I think I had it sorted in the end, although one or two nagging doubts about who was who, when and where, remained.

The characters are well drawn and complex. I particularly liked the character of Jack, whose story is written on the cell wall. I am not always a fan of first person narration, but I think this works particularly well. The writing of this particular stream of the narrative was also of a higher quality.

This brings me to the major flaws of the book. In many places the English is very poor. There is poor grammar and incorrect word choice. I imagine that English is not the author’s first language. Several times, particularly early on, I almost gave up on the book because of this, although I am glad that I didn’t. The language at times is excessively flowery, and the characters and narrator are sometimes prone to lapsing into philosophical discourses. This may work well with an Indian audience (the author was born in India) but less so with a Western audience. Although there are still flaws in the ‘Jack’ narrative, I thought the writing was of a higher quality, at times even acquiring a certain beauty.

Many will be put off by the flaws in the writing, or will not have the patience to wait for the strands of the story to be woven together; but those who persist to the end will, I think, be pleased with the result.

I have decided to no longer rate books using the star system. I don't think it is helpful.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

When World Views Clash (and when don’t they?)

The former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, recently stated in an article in an Australia newspaper: ‘Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.’

Where to begin with the issues raised by a comment like this?

First of all, I want to make some obvious points, which nevertheless are rarely made. What we believe, we believe to be true. A tautology? Possibly. The point is that we believe ‘facts’, accept ideas, adopt values because we think they reflect reality at one level or another. Our world view is precisely that, an understanding of the world, because we think—at least at some level—that the world is really like that. (It is tempting to put so many of these words in quotation marks, because their meaning is so slippery and elusive.) We may not always be fully conscious or aware of our own basic world view, but it is there if we dig deeply enough.

So, if I believe that the world is created by a supreme, divine being who has some purpose for this world and for me personally, it is an inevitable corollary of this that I think those who don’t believe in such a being are mistaken. Their view of the world is inaccurate, inappropriate—in some way ‘inferior’ to mine—if the superiority of a belief system is measured in terms of how accurately it reflects ‘reality’. (Here come those damn quotation marks again!)

If we hold to a particular view of the world (and who doesn’t?) it is, therefore, somewhat disingenuous to claim, for example, that all belief systems are ‘equally valid’. It is, of course, entirely possible to hold such a view, but it must, paradoxically, exclude those belief systems (most of them, I suspect) which don’t share it. We may acknowledge someone’s right to hold a view that is different to our own, but we nevertheless believe our own world view to be correct. At least provisionally correct; the best we can do at the moment. There remains here, at least, the acknowledgement that no world view is actually complete or perfect; that additional information may require us to modify that point of view; and that perhaps, on some issues at least, the jury is currently out. The more one is convinced of the truth (read ‘superiority’) of our own world view—some might say, the stronger our ‘faith’—the less room there is for such tolerance, ambiguity and uncertainty.

The second point I want to make I will pose as a question: what criteria can we use to evaluate a culture or world view? The difficulty here is that we can only do so from within our own. I know of no way to elevate ourselves above all cultures and adopt some entirely objective perspective. Consider the points I made in the previous paragraph. They reflect my world view. I believe that a certain humility vis à vis questions of truth is a good thing. I believe that some ambiguity and uncertainty about the nature of reality is inevitable. This is not true of all things. Some issues I believe to be settled. For me, the jury is not out on everything. With respect to those things about which my mind is firmly made up, I will be less tolerant of divergent opinions. I will acknowledge a person’s right to a different point of view, which is actually code for acknowledging their right to be wrong. But this acceptance of ambiguity and this (limited) tolerance of other points of view are not shared by everyone. There are plenty of belief systems in which doubt is anathema, in which truth is absolute and unambiguous. People hold to those views as firmly as I hold to mine, probably more so. Am I right, or are they right? Of course I think I am right. But is there some higher, objective position from which I can claim this with certainty? I don’t believe so. They probably do, and they call it god (by whatever name). So even the question of whether there is some higher, more objective perspective from which to determine ‘truth’ may or may not constitute part of someone’s world view. Herein lies the path to infinite regress.

I heard the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say the other day, with regard to diversity: ‘The elements on which we are similar are far greater than the elements on which we are diverse.’ I don’t doubt that this is true, in simple, quantitative terms. Nevertheless, it is always the differences that loom largest in our minds. We may agree about 99% of things, but it is the 1% about which we disagree that occupies our time and attention. Qualitatively, the one per cent comes to matter much more than the ninety-nine per cent. Is this something deeply ingrained in our psyche over the course of evolution? After all, it is precisely the differences between organisms that drive the process of evolution. Psychologically, I think it is very difficult to focus on the ninety-nine per cent and not be constantly drawn back to the one percent.

I always fall back on this position: while I cannot give definitive answers to questions such as these, I think it is important that they be raised. We need to bring questions like these to the forefront of our minds whenever we are considering the important issues with which the current social and political state of the world confronts us. We need to be aware of our own world view and its limitations. We need to acknowledge our own areas of doubt and uncertainty. At the same time, we need to be aware of the issues that are, in our mind, unambiguous and non-negotiable. We need to be aware of what constitute, for us, absolutes, while at the same time acknowledging our inability to justify their absolute status. In doing this we acknowledge the limits of our certitude without necessarily abandoning it. We need to be aware that we cannot transcend our own perspective. No matter how many steps we take along the infinite regress towards objectivity, we always remain securely ensconced within our own limited point of view.

Life is always much simpler for those who live in certainty and are guided by absolutes. Unfortunately, the world is also made more dangerous by them. As long as they live exclusively within a culture which shares their world view—they imagine such exists—everything is just peachy. When they come up against a world view that is different from theirs, war is inevitable.

If for no other reason than that it may help to avoid war and promote the survival of our species, I will advocate for uncertainty and ambiguity every time. This means, of course, that uncertainty and ambiguity are among my absolute non-negotiables. What happens when my belief system clashes with one in which these very things are totally anathema? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be at a dinner party with Tony Abbott and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At such a dinner party they might find themselves surprising allies against me.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Filter Words

What are filter words? These are words we, as writers, use to place a character as a filter between the reader and the experience of that character in the story we are writing. There are a whole host of such words and expressions, and the best way to understand their importance is to give some examples.

As she climbed over a pile of timber she noticed a sudden movement, which made her jump; then she laughed again. She saw a cat shoot out between her legs and run off into the distance, its left front leg dangling loosely. Near her, she watched one of the men begin to pull away bricks and lengths of timber and twisted metal. Kate watched him with intense interest. Then she saw another movement from the corner of her eye. A few feet in front of the man, she realised that some of the debris had begun to stir and fall away. Kate moved in that direction. From a small opening in the rubble she watched a hand emerge. Then an arm and a head. She thought it might have been something human. She decided to step towards it, watching curiously. She stared as the arm grabbed hold of a wooden beam and began to pull. Gradually she saw a body emerge, bloodied like a newborn. Then she watched it begin to crawl over the rubble towards her. The man who had been digging came over, pushed Kate aside, and knelt beside the figure, cradling it gently.

The shaded phrases in this passage are examples of words that act as filters. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that the experience of the reader is filtered through the experience of the character. The reader does not experience the event directly, but experiences the character’s experience of it. It means, secondly, that the attention of the reader is directed towards the character, rather than towards the scene. The reader is watching the character go through these experiences, rather than going through them him- or herself vicariously. ‘She saw a cat shoot out between her legs ...’ The reader is watching her see the cat, rather than watching the cat.

Here is the same passage without most of those filter words/phrases. Apart from anything else, the passage has 28 (14%) fewer words:

As she climbed over a pile of timber a sudden movement made her jump; then she laughed again. A cat shot out between her legs and ran off into the distance, its left front leg dangling loosely. Near her, one of the men began to pull away bricks and lengths of timber and twisted metal. Kate watched him with intense interest. Then another movement caught her eye. A few feet in front of the man, some of the debris began to stir and fall away. Kate moved in that direction. From a small opening in the rubble a hand emerged. Then an arm and a head. It might have been something human. She stepped towards it and watched curiously. The arm grabbed hold of a wooden beam and began to pull. Gradually a body emerged, bloodied like a newborn. Then it began to crawl over the rubble towards her. The man who had been digging came over, pushed Kate aside, and knelt beside the figure, cradling it gently.

In many cases, these filter words are simply redundant. ‘I felt a shiver run up my spine ...’ or ‘A shiver ran up my spine ...’? ‘He decided to go to the shops ...’ or ‘He went to the shops ...’? If a character goes to the shops, the reader can assume that at some point he decided to do so; the reader doesn’t need to be informed of this.

Note that filter words and phrases are used in first and third person narratives alike.

Avoiding these words and phrases should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule. There are sure to be places where their use is fine or even desired. I would simply encourage writers (1) to be aware when they are using these filters and (2) to ask if, in this case, they are necessary or desirable.

Here is a list of some of the words that can be used as filters. I’m sure you can think of others.
to see
to notice
to hear
to think
to touch
to wonder
to realize
to watch
to look
to seem
to feel (or feel like)
to decide
to sound (or sound like)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tony Abbott's Lacklustre Legacy

I am always hesitant to discuss Australian politics in this blog because most readers within Australia care only the tiniest fraction more about Australian politics than readers outside Australia. But am I completely deluding myself in believing that on Monday night, when Tony Abbott was dumped as PM, there was a spontaneous sigh of relief across the nation? And did I not, perhaps, hear an echo of that sigh from some of our nearest neighbours?

While I should have been working I have been trawling the internet in search of anything positive that might have been written about Abbott’s legacy. I came up with nothing, zippo, nada. Admittedly, I have not tuned in to any Andrew Bolts or Alan Joneses, Abbott’s rightwing media worshippers. Are they still trying to argue, I wonder, that Tone was a good PM? One rightwing conservative commentator on the TV show Q&A (ABC Australia) on Monday night tried to do so, to an outbreak of derisive laughter. In contrast, when the news of Abbott’s demise was announced on that same show there was a spontaneous outbreak of applause that lasted quite some time. Thirty-nine percent of the audience were supporters of the conservative coalition government led by Abbott.

Those desperate to demonstrate what a good PM he was will no doubt continue to trumpet his three negative achievements: preventing boatloads of asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores, abolishing a tax on carbon and abolishing a tax on large mining corporations. That’s it, the litany we heard on Abbott’s lips from the first few months of his prime ministership to its last days. Only about a week ago Abbott was asked on another ABC current affairs show what he had done for the economy. ‘Well, Lee,’ he replied, ‘we stopped the boats ...’

Abbott’s legacy is laughable. It’s difficult to see how history can ever be re-written on this one.

I do not know how the new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, will turn out in the long run. There is a slight euphoria in the air at the moment. Perhaps it’s no more than the sense of relief you get when you stop hitting your head against the wall. However short-lived, I’ll enjoy it for the moment. Of course, there are some who have unkindly pointed out that a turnip would have made a better PM than Tony Abbott ever did. Tony Abbot was so bad that anyone after him must look good—for a while anyway.

There are many who say of Tony Abbott that he is a ‘nice man’ or a ‘good bloke’. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t say one way or the other. Maybe Robert Mugabe and Vladimir Putin—or a host of other dubious leaders—are also good blokes. Bashar al Assad might be a riot around the BBQ. Hitler loved his dog, Blondi. And before you trample me under foot I am not comparing Abbott to these people. I am merely pointing out that even the worst among us is not devoid of some redeeming qualities. In the end, being a good bloke is simply not good enough: what we need is a good leader. Whether our new PM turns out to be that leader only time will tell. As someone who does not support the conservative side of politics (surprised?) I sincerely hope so.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Not the 7.30 Report

Presenter: Welcome to the show, Prime Minister.
PM: Thanks for having me, Dee. Always a pleasure.
Presenter: Well, Prime Minister, the big news today, of course, is the ending, at last, of the Middle East crisis.
PM: Yes indeed, Dee, yes indeed. We’re very proud of our achievement. Very proud.
Presenter: It certainly was an inspired idea.
PM: Yes indeed, Dee. It was inspired. Inspired.
Presenter: And whose idea was it to construct a huge, impermeable dome above the whole Middle East and suck out all the air?
PM: Well, Dee, it was a team effort. We like to think, Dee, that, er, we played an important part in this, along with our allies, of course. We’re very proud to have made Australia—and the world, Dee, the world—a safer place. A safer place.
Presenter: But some of your critics will say that the people who actually lived there—many millions of innocent people—paid a terrible price for our safety. I think the opposition leader may have mumbled something to that effect.
PM: Yes, well, Dee, there will always be those ... We are tough on terrorism and evil-doers, Dee. If the opposition wants to be weak on terrorism, well ... We are tough on evil-doers, Dee. Tough. We’ve kept our promise to keep Australia safe.
Presenter: Prime Minister, now that the threat has been removed, I assume we will see some of the tougher laws on terrorism, and laws restricting our freedom—
PM: Well now, Dee. We can’t afford to be, er, we can’t afford to be complacent about these things. We can’t afford to be complacent.
Presenter: Does that mean that you won’t be winding back those laws?
PM: Well, er, Dee, we never know when or where the next threat might arise. We can’t afford to let down our guard.
Presenter: But, Prime Minister, where could such a threat possibly come from?
PM: Well, Dee, we are committed to injecting additional funding into our, er, national security agencies to find out just that, Dee.
Presenter: More money?
PM: Yes, Dee, it’s precisely at this point in time, at this point in time, that our national security needs boosting. We need to identify any potential threat and nip it in the bud, Dee, nip it in the bud.
Presenter: So—
PM: We will nip any potential threat in the bud, Dee.
Presenter: And have any potential threats been identified, Prime Minister?
PM: Well, Dee, you know, of course, that I’m not at liberty to discuss national security matters.
Presenter: So you will keep the existing legislation—
PM: In fact we have a whole raft of legislation, a whole raft of new legislation on the books, er, Dee.
Presenter: Like what, Prime Minister?
PM: Well, Dee, I can’t go into details at the moment, but suffice it to say, suffice it to say, that if we are going to be proactive, if we are going to nip potential threats in the bud, Dee, we need to introduce measures ...
Presenter: And when will we see these new measures?
PM: All in good time, Dee, all in good time. And we hope that the opposition will allow these measures through, allow them through, Dee, and not give succour to our potential enemies.
Presenter: And you can tell us nothing more specific about these threats or this legislation?
PM: Dee, we have a responsibility, a responsibility, to keep Australia safe. If we were to identify these potential threats, we would be warning them—warning those who wish Australia harm—that we were onto them, and giving them time to dig in. We can’t allow that. We can’t allow it.
Presenter: It’s difficult to see where such threats might come from, Prime Minister. Aren’t you just scaring people by talking up nebulous threats?
PM: Let me just say, Dee, let me just say, that it’s an awfully big universe out there, an awfully big universe, and we have to be prepared—prepared—for any eventuality.
Presenter: Thank you for your time, Prime Minister.
PM: Your welcome, Dee.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

I am what I write

I wonder if this is as true for you as it is for me.

Those of you who subject your writing to the scrutiny of others will know the anguish that can bubble in the belly as you await their verdict. So much of who I am is invested in my writing. That’s why criticism of it is so hard to take, even when well and truly justified.

Those who don’t experience this ... Well, I wonder how they manage it? Is writing a different kind of experience for them? Is it more of a business venture? Just a job? I suspect this applies much more widely than just to writing. There are those who invest themselves, heart and soul, into what they do, and those who approach the job in a more detached way: it’s just a task to be completed. When we do experience this intense involvement with our work, we know we have at last found something in which our emotional and spiritual energy is heavily invested. We are ‘going with the flow’. We can no longer separate what we do from who we are. I suppose this is what we mean when we differentiate between a job and a vocation. We are called from within, though, rather than from without. Through our work we project ourselves into the world. Ourselves.

I recently had one of my manuscripts assessed, and the assessor clearly liked my writing style. She had some very insightful suggestions to make about the structure and content. I didn’t mind her finding fault with those aspects of the manuscript, but I know that if she had criticised the words I used I would have felt considerable pain. I realised then how heavily invested I am in the words I write. So much more so than in the plot or the structure. Of course I realise objectively that these other things are important. I want to get them right. But they are not so much a part of me as the actual words I use.

It is becoming clear to me that this is simply non-negotiable. Of course I will use the wrong word here and there and build a clunky sentence. Of course some passages of my books are better written than others. But I will not—cannot—change the fundamental way that I use words and construct sentences and images. I won’t do that for any editor, any publisher, or any potential reader. I can no more do that than I can cease to be who I am.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Re-Visiting Asylum Seekers

How does the rest of the world perceive Australia’s response to asylum seekers (if the rest of the world notices at all)? Our current ‘liberal’ (for which read ‘ultra-conservative’ and ‘right wing’) government won the election based (or so they claim) on their determination to ‘stop the boats’. There seem to be only three elements to this government’s policy towards asylum seekers: (1) stop the boats; (2) process these ‘illegal’ asylum seekers off shore (in another country); and (3) never permit them to settle in Australia.

Let’s assume that stopping the boats was the best way to put an end to people smuggling (which I don’t concede—there were and are numerous other approaches); let’s assume, also, that the policy of turning back boats and off-shore processing has actually put an end to this illegal trade (both of which are contentious issues, if for no other reason than the secrecy in which the government shrouds all of this) ... Assuming both of these things for the sake of argument, surely this should only ever have been the starting point for developing a positive and constructive policy for dealing with the vast and catastrophic wave of migration that the current refugee crisis represents.

We in Australia, together with other western nations, have contributed significantly to the destabilisation of the Middle East which has resulted in this growing catastrophe. Surely as a nation we have a responsibility to do more to address this disaster than to demonise these refugees, make this someone else’s problem and add more bombs to the mix in the Middle East.

Do we really think that this government’s policies have ‘saved lives’ (or were ever intended to)? Even if this were the case, it is only a (very poor) beginning.

It’s time that this government stepped up to the plate and did much more to help address this worldwide crisis. I fear that it lacks both the capacity and the will to do so.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Eagles and Chickens

The Eagle Who Thought He Was a Chicken:
A baby eagle became orphaned when something happened to his parents. He glided down to the ground from his nest but was not yet able to fly. A man picked him up. The man took him to a farmer and said, “This is a special kind of barnyard chicken that will grow up big.” The farmer said, “Don’t look like no barnyard chicken to me.” “Oh yes, it is. You will be glad to own it.” The farmer took the baby eagle and placed it with his chickens.
The baby eagle learned to imitate the chickens. He could scratch the ground for grubs and worms too. He grew up thinking he was a chicken.
Then one day an eagle flew over the barnyard. The eagle looked up and wondered, “What kind of animal is that? How graceful, powerful, and free it is.” Then he asked another chicken, “What is that?” The chicken replied, “Oh, that is an eagle. But don’t worry yourself about that. You will never be able to fly like that.”
And the eagle went back to scratching the ground. He continued to behave like the chicken he thought he was. Finally he died, never knowing the grand life that could have been his.
I don’t know who the author of the above website is. There are many versions of this story. In some versions the eagle eventually recognises his true nature and soars up into the heavens.

I suppose that’s all great if you actually are an eagle who mistakenly thinks it’s a chicken. The trouble is ... I suspect most of us are chickens who think we’re eagles. And therein lies the source of so many of our difficulties. The ever-present guilt so many of us feel arises from the fact that we constantly fail to do those things that an eagle can do, but a chicken cannot. Of course we constantly fail, because we are chickens, not eagles. And what’s wrong with being a chicken? Nothing at all.

Perhaps our lives would be far less stressful (and the world a better place) if all us chickens stopped trying to be eagles.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review: 'Celestial Blue Skies' by Maggie Collins

What do I know about the life of white people, black people and ‘high yellers’ in Louisiana in 1985? Not a great deal. Here in this book I find myself involved in the life of a community and a family in Belle Place, Louisiana, a sugar-cane-growing region.

There is Grandmother Maymay, T-man, her husband, Mother Tut, their daughter and T-red, their son, married to Bumblebee. Finally there is Celeste, the eldest of Mother Tut’s children, twelve years old at the opening of the novel.

Mother Tut and Celeste are ‘high yellers’ who could almost pass for white.

Tut was very young when she had her children, so young that really Maymay acts as their mother, with assistance from Bumblebee. Mother Tut is almost childlike—perhaps a little ‘simple’. She is irresistible to men, has little resistance to their approaches, and is regarded as a slut by the community. She has, however, an endearing, naive quality. This, along with her physical beauty, is perhaps what makes her so attractive to men.

Celeste, by contrast, is much older than her years and very intelligent. She is blessed—or perhaps cursed—with her mother’s good looks. She struggles to avoid her mother’s fate.

In many ways this is a coming of age story. Celeste is the central character, and much of the narrative is related from her first person perspective. However, at times the first person narration is taken up by others, most often Tut. Celeste at the beginning of the novel is twelve years old, but by the end is perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Along the way she is strongly attracted to a young Rastafarian boy called Vashan.

Mother Tut has the opportunity to escape her life in Belle Place when she is taken away to another town by a worker in the cane fields known as ‘Black’. Will she be able to break out of the behaviour and lifestyle in which she is trapped? Will Celeste be able to reach her potential? These are the central elements of the plot here.

Among the themes which I found fascinating was the exploration of intra-racial prejudice between the various ‘degrees’ of blackness within this community. As a white man it is difficult to know how to discuss this without unintentionally offending someone or straying from political correctness. Suffice it to say that the seemingly infinite capacity of the human species to divide itself into ‘us and them’ is alive and well in Belle Place, Louisiana. Or, at least, it was in the 1980s.

The strength of this novel was in its characterisation, particularly that of Mother Tut and Celeste. Despite their flaws these characters were mostly likeable, and certainly understandable. Although they sometimes behaved badly, there was never a sense that this was the only thing to say about them. I did think from time to time that the author was resorting to African-American stereotypes; but perhaps these stereotypes have their origins somewhere/somewhen in the real-life experience of the author. I’ve met a few stereotypes myself over the years.

I enjoyed the language, which included elements of Creole and French as well as the colourful version of English spoken in those parts. The voices sounded authentic to me. On the other hand, what do I know about that time and place?

The novel is perhaps weakest when it comes to plot. I did not sense any great movement or development in the plot until near the end, when there are real moments of suspense and tension. I thought a few more moments of tension and conflict along the way would have given the narrative a more interesting contour. Character is very much the dominant element here.

There is one very interesting development towards the end, which would not generally be expected in a novel that is narrated in the first person. I will say no more about that, except to say that it was very effective.

The editing let the author down a little here and there, particular in the latter third of the novel, when there were an increasing number of typos. I suspect the author had at some stage switched from a third person to a first person narrative, and some of the pronoun changes were overlooked (‘them’ instead of ‘us’, for instance).

While I loved the characterisation here, because the plot was not as strong or as contoured as it might have been, I am inclined to give this three and a half stars, but rounding this up to four where necessary.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Magical Thinking

Most of us, when considering this issue seriously and with our grown-up hats on, would probably say we don’t believe in magic (of the Harry Potter variety, at least). Spells and potions ... That’s the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. It is astonishing, however, how easily even intelligent adults can slip back into ‘magical thinking’.

By this I mean those times when we think that somehow, in some mysterious and unspecified way, our thoughts and wishes can influence the world around us. How many times have you heard someone say (or said yourself) something like this: ‘Whenever I go into a busy car park I just say to myself, over and over, “I will find a spot, I will find a spot”—and, wouldn’t you know, just at that moment someone pulls out and leaves one free!’ Some people ‘wish’ for this, some people ‘pray’ for it, and some people just clench their teeth and try to will it to happen. I can hear many of you saying even as I write this, ‘But it’s true!’

Well, guess what. It isn’t. I also go into crowded car parks, and I find a car park without doing any of that. At least, I try not to do it. However, we are so egocentric that despite all our efforts to remain rational, we persist in the belief that we are the centre of the universe and that we can bend it to our will, or we can bend God to our will so that he will bend the universe to accommodate our wishes. Wishes which are, for the most part, pretty trivial.

I certainly do it at other times and in other circumstances. For example, that lotto ticket I bought the other night ... Do I go to bed and ‘wish’—‘pretty please, pretty please’—to win? Of course I do. And when I win a little prize I say, ‘See, it works’ ... and conveniently forget the previous ten, twenty, thirty times prior to that when it didn’t work. Our mind is strange. We notice and remember the occasions when our wishes happen to coincide with the reality that unfolds, and conveniently forget the rest. Finding patterns is something our mind does very well. Many times this is really useful. This actually requires us to filter out extraneous noise. Unfortunately we can easily fool ourselves, too, into seeing patterns and relationships that aren’t there. In particular, we easily see causality where there is none.

There was a time when different models of cars used to look quite different from each other. Now they all look pretty much the same; or certain categories of cars do, anyway: hatchbacks, four-wheel drives or whatever. Who can tell which model or brand is which? But I remember a time when I would buy a car that had some distinguishing features and, all of a sudden, I would see this particular model of car everywhere. ‘Wow! Spooky! Isn’t it strange how I now keep seeing ****s everywhere!’ Our magical thinking imagines that the world has changed in some mysterious way since I bought the car; that somehow the universe is suddenly bringing more ****s into my sphere of reality. Of course, what has changed is my perception. Before I didn’t notice ****s; now I do.

I am as prone to magical thinking as anyone. It seems to be hardwired, linked to our ability to detect patterns and to generalise from specifics. These are very useful capacities. However, I like to think that I can step back a little from that, apply a little rationality and logic to the situation.

It’s not always necessary to do this. What’s wrong with a little magic, after all? Nothing really, except that it can lead to certain individual and societal disorders. What is an obsessive compulsive disorder if not an extreme form of magical thinking? ‘I have to turn the light on and off five times or something bad is going to happen.’ How easily magical thinking can lead to guilt when it fails. ‘It’s my fault. I didn’t wish [or believe or pray] hard enough.’ If we falsely believe that we have that kind of power over the universe, then I guess it’s our fault when it doesn’t work. A healthy, mature mind recognises that some things (and, indeed, a great many things) are actually beyond our control.

A little magical thinking is harmless. But it does contain within it the seeds of individual neurosis and collective neurosis. A great deal of the expression of religion is just that. I happen to think the world is quite beautiful and mysterious enough, without having to introduce mystery that isn’t really there.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Writing for the marketplace? No thanks.

There are a great many people in the world who read books. You may have noticed. As varied as the people themselves is their taste in reading material. Of course it’s true that some genres or authors are particularly popular at any one time. But alongside those who like the current trend are—dare I say?—millions of readers who would prefer to read something else.

There are those who would suggest that it is necessary to tailor your writing to accommodate the current, dominant market. I suppose, if you are primarily interested in making money, that’s a good suggestion. Those who wish to write differently are often told, ‘There’s no market for that these days.’

This is rubbish. The potential market is huge. Somewhere out there are at least thousands, almost certainly tens of thousands, and possibly millions of people who will want to read your book.

As a writer we have two choices. We can either write what we think the ‘market’ wants to buy at this microsecond—or, at least, what someone, somewhere in the mystical, magical world of market research says the market wants. Or we can write our own work in our own way and try to reach those who will want to read it. They are there, somewhere.

None of this excuses bad writing, of course. Anyone who has been following my blog will know how adamant I am about ensuring our work is of the highest possible standard. Nevertheless, it does not have to tick all the boxes the marketing world thinks it must tick to be a winner. A genre or style of writing that is not currently fashionable can still appeal to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of readers who are not interested in the latest trends.

I am not for one moment suggesting that it is easy to tap into this potential market. I would, however, suggest that that is the real challenge. The challenge is not to write a marketable book, but to write your best book and find the market for it. They are out there somewhere, your eager readers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, published in 1998. A Baptist minister, Nathan Price, relocates his family from the state of Georgia in the USA to work as a missionary in the remote village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, in the late nineteen fifties, early nineteen sixties. Nathan is a man very sure of himself and his faith. We witness—largely through the eyes of his four daughters and occasionally his wife—his total failure to relate to the people of the village in which the family now lives, and the gradual disintegration of the family as it deals with a number of calamities, whether they be natural, personal, social or political. The title derives from the ambiguity—or perhaps complexity and subtlety—of the Kikongo language. Nathan finishes each sermon with these words: ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala.’ He wants this to mean: ‘The Lord Jesus is precious and dear.’ However, the way he pronounces the word ‘Bangala’ it means: ‘The Lord Jesus is the poisonwood tree.’ ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends’ says Adah his daughter during her narration, ‘for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.’

The story is told largely as a first person narrative through the eyes of the daughters: Ruth May, the youngest, who is five at the start of the novel; Leah and Adah, twins, who are fourteen; and Rachel, who is fifteen. Sometimes the narrator is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna.

I know nothing about life in a Congolese village in the middle of the last century, but I could not help feeling that we were not being presented with a ‘real life’ story here. Rather this was a vision of the world shifted slightly out of phase into a reality in which the natural laws to which we are accustomed do not always apply. To that extent the novel has a magical realist flavour. Certainly this is also due to the fact that this world is seen through very young eyes. To younger eyes, perhaps Kingsolver is telling us, the world is a less comprehensible, more magical, more mythological place.

The youngest daughter, Ruth, is playful, curious and adventurous. She is the one most able to adapt to this new world into which she is thrown. She is less fully formed and therefore more malleable. She has a less rational approach to reality and is more accepting of the strange, the unusual, the different. She is able to communicate with the other children in the village, when necessary at a non-verbal level. Leah, one of the twins, is deeply devoted to her father and tries hardest to accept and understand him. She is also independent and something of a tomboy. Although in the end she departs radically from her father’s views, she retains some of the passion, conviction and even dogmatism with which he holds them. Adah is the other twin, hemiplagic from birth (only one side of her brain develops), with apparent physical disabilities and a limited ability to speak (at least at this stage of her life). She is, at the same time, brilliant in a ‘Rainman’ kind of way. She also has a very distinctive way of perceiving and dealing with the world. The oldest daughter is Rachel, self-obsessed, superficial and enraptured with American culture.

Orleanna is deferential towards her husband but gradually begins to assert her independence as the family suffers hardship and, ultimately, tragedy. Eventually her maternal instincts take over, and she is a lioness defending her cubs.

I never really felt moved by this novel, its characters or their fate. I was intrigued, fascinated and interested, but not deeply, emotionally involved. I think this has to do with the fact that I never felt that these were real, flesh and blood people. Rather, they were mythological representations of different world views or philosophies. After the family leaves the village and the characters go their separate ways, I thought this became even more the case: these were politico-socio-spiritual embodiments rather than people. This was particularly true, I thought, of the daughters. And amongst them, particularly Rachel and Leah, who represent polar opposites. I would have been quite happy for the novel to end when they left the village, and was not really satisfied with the way it developed subsequently.

There are so many themes dealt with in this novel: religion and spirituality; politics and society; colonialism and the clash of cultures; the domination and callousness of the West. What was the final message that I took from this? Perhaps that no culture can ever hope to fully comprehend another. All of this was fascinating, thought provoking and would generate excellent discussion groups. It no doubt has in the years since its publication. But for much of the time, the concrete flesh and blood of humanity was buried beneath this intellectual load. For example, was the relationship between Leah and her Congolese husband Antoine a real relationship, or was it a vehicle for exploring cultural relations and political oppression? More the latter, I think, than the former.

This novel is no doubt a masterful achievement. I thought perhaps Kingsolver dragged it out too long. It could, as I have intimated, have finished satisfactorily about three quarters of the way through, after the family leaves the village. What comes after that is less and less story and more and more philosophical, political and social commentary. There are certainly moments of beautiful prose here, and the novel is always thought provoking. Nevertheless, because it is overlong, and because I never quite made an emotional investment in the characters or their story, I give it four stars.

Sculpting Wet Clay

So many analogies with other art forms are appropriate when considering writing as art. Painting with words. A verbal symphony. Recently I have spent several weeks wrestling with a chapter in my new novel. This book has been difficult to write from the word go, but this chapter just wouldn’t come together. I knew more or less how it needed to end, but getting to there from the beginning was like swimming through treacle.

In that previous paragraph I notice I have applied two non-artistic metaphors to the process of writing: wrestling and swimming (through treacle). I hope when I mention wrestling this doesn’t conjure up images of the theatre that appears on our televisions. Or sumo wrestling. Actually, I hope it conjures up no visual images at all. I can think of no form of wrestling which is even remotely pleasing to the eye. No. Think of wrestling with the lid of a stubborn jar, or a flat-pack piece of furniture. Something that just won’t bloody work!

As for swimming through treacle ... Well, I’ve never actually tried it, though I can’t imagine it would be very pleasant.

The image I actually had in mind when I began this post was of writing as a form of sculpture. Here is a piece of clay that we must keep wet, pushing it here, pulling it there, slicing away this, adding that. This is what writing sometimes feels like to me. I have a lump of something that I must mould and shape. Perhaps I see the final form inside this lump, as a sculptor might see the man in the chunk of marble. But drawing out that shape ... That is difficult and time consuming. This is how physical writing can sometimes be for me.

I think I have the shape of that chapter correct now. On to the next.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Don't Dangle (Your Participles)

‘Walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’

Some of you will read that sentence and realise immediately what is wrong with it. Others will stare for hours and see nothing wrong at all.

That, my friends, is a dangling participle. We all do it from time to time, dangle our participles, without realising we have done so. I can sometimes read past them without noticing.

A participle is an adjectival form derived from a verb. ‘Walking’ is the present participle of the verb ‘to walk’. We use it as a verb with the auxiliary verb ‘to be’: ‘he is walking’; ‘he was walking’. But we can also use it as an adjective to describe something: ‘He is a walking, talking dictionary.’

In the sentence above ‘walking’ is not being used as a verb. The subject and auxiliary verb are absent. It is being used to describe something. It is being used adjectivally. We might say, ‘There he was, walking along the beach.’ Here, ‘walking along the beach’ describes ‘him’, much as ‘dressed’ does in this sentence: ‘There he was, walking along the beach, dressed in a pink kimono.’ ‘Dressed’ is a past participle.

So what is wrong with the sentence at the head of this blog? ‘Walking’ needs an accompanying noun to describe. Taken as it stands, ‘walking’ describes the sun. If we rewrite this sentence we can see the problem more clearly: ‘The sun, walking along the beach, shone brightly in my eyes.’ Now perhaps the sun is walking along the beach in the strange world we are creating here. But probably not.

What is meant by this sentence is: ‘As I was walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ If this is what you mean, then, well ... it’s probably a good idea to write it. You might also want to say, ‘Glaring up above, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ ‘Glaring’ is quite happy to describe the sun. ‘Walking’—I have it on good authority—generally is not.

We are quite capable of dangling other things as well; participles are not alone in suffering this indignity. ‘At the age of eight, my family emigrated to Australia.’ Ah, okay. My family was eight years old? Clearly I mean: ‘When I was eight years old, my family emigrated to Australia.’ A useful rule of thumb is: If you mean one thing, don’t say another.

Of course it is easy for our eye to slip over things like this when we have written them ourselves. We know what we meant, so that’s what we read. Indeed, dangling bits are so common that we usually know what the person meant even when we didn’t write it ourselves. But they do jar. When I come across one I do just have to shake my head momentarily to dislodge the image of Old Sol strolling along the beach on (what would be) a very sunny day.

So be very, very careful about what you leave dangling out there.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An Apology to Our ANZAC Heroes

In case you have been asleep during the last year or so, much of the world is currently devoting a lot of time, energy and money to remembering the First World War, which began and ended a century or so ago. In Australia the focal point for this is the battle that took place at Gallipoli, on the shores of Turkey, on and around April 25, 1915. In Australia we commemorate this as ANZAC Day, which is quickly becoming—if it is not already—the holiest day in Australia’s calendar. It was a massive catastrophe, a failed invasion, which resulted in the deaths of about 44,000 allied troops. ANZAC stands for ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’. For anyone wanting more details, a quick Google search will yield hundreds of thousands of results.

About 8000 Australians died on the beaches of what is now ANZAC Cove. Although ‘claimed’ by Australia and New Zealand, we should remember that over 21,000 British troops also died during this debacle.

I have no problem with mourning the waste of life there and during the rest of this war. And a waste it was. This was no great defence of freedom; Australian troops were not ‘fighting for their country’. Australia had no argument with Turkey. This was very much a case of old men sending young men to die. Of course, many young Australians set off eagerly on this adventure, just as some young men today set off eagerly to fight alongside ISIS (or whatever we are supposed to call it these days). Rightly or wrongly, this is something that young men will do; a little encouragement from the ‘old men’ can turn a trickle into a flood.

Were the men brave who fought and died in these campaigns? Many probably were. Those who put their own lives at risk to save others, for example. An horrific scenario like this does indeed generate great acts of heroism. It probably also generates great acts of what some would call ‘cowardice’. Did many turn and flee? Probably. I wouldn’t blame them. I would likely have been among them. As much as heroism and bravery certainly occurred at Gallipoli and other World War One battlefields, being there in the first place was nothing short of stupidity.

As we remember this war, let’s remember it for its stupidity, waste and horror, rather than for the acts of bravery it triggered as a consequence. If we focus on the latter, do we not send the message that seeking out conflict in order to share in this glory, heroism, bravery and camaraderie is a good and worthy thing? Let’s not thank our heroes who fought and died in this pointless conflict. Let’s apologise to them.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: The Meeting Point, by Lucy Caldwell

I know what it is like to be a keen young deacon in the Anglican Church. I also know what it is like when your faith slowly withers and dies, losing all relevance. Euan is a young Anglican deacon from Ireland, who accepts a brief posting to the Anglican community of Bahrain, with his wife Ruth and their young daughter Anna. This is shortly before the outbreak of the Second Gulf War.

When Ruth discovers that her husband has not revealed the full extent of his mission, she finds herself—emotionally at least—all but alone in Bahrain, and her faith begins to crumble. She meets a troubled young teenager, Noor, who has moved from England to Bahrain with her Muslim father, following a serious incident at her school. Noor becomes involved with Ruth and her husband, looking after young Anna at every opportunity. Ruth also meets Noor’s cousin, Farid, nineteen years old.

The story is told exclusively from the intimate point of view of Ruth and Noor. Other characters come and go, but none take centre stage. Everything is viewed and lived through the eyes of Ruth and Noor. This is their emotional, spiritual and psychological journey.

Those who are looking for action and adventure should not turn to this book. There is tension and even suspense here, but the essential story takes place inside the minds of these two characters. What happens is much less important than their response to it. There is surprisingly little external dialogue here, but a great deal of internal dialogue and introspection. This will not appeal to everyone. Some readers may become irritated with these characters, perhaps Ruth in particular, because of their poor judgement and questionable decisions. Nevertheless I felt that there was some real honesty and insight here.

There are some grammatical issues that I thought the editors at Faber and Faber might have addressed. I am used to seeing such things in self-published books—comma splices, mismatched subject and verb, misplaced commas—but I would have expected a more exacting standard here. The author also slips sometimes between past and future tenses. I can understand why for literary reasons an author might decide to adopt the present tense at times—to create a particular sense of immediacy perhaps—but the reasons here were not immediately obvious.

I found the ending satisfactory, with loose ends tied up. I was particularly interested in how Ruth’s character and spirituality developed. While at times I thought it might develop into such, this was not an apology for Anglicanism or any other version of the Christian faith. Again there was a certain truth and honesty here.

Some will simply be bored with this book. I enjoyed it, even though the introspection may at times be a little overdone. I also enjoyed it—perhaps—because I had a view from the inside. I give this four stars.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Busy or Productive?

For a time I worked for a community organisation, providing support for the long-term unemployed. These were usually people dealing with a multitude of issues: psychiatric and other health and/or substance abuse issues; domestic violence; restricted educational opportunities. What exactly I was supposed to do to help them was never quite clear. An hour’s chat, once every month or so—if they turned up for their appointments—achieved little. Often they didn’t turn up; and, let’s face it, beyond meeting the requirements for their welfare payment, what incentive did they have?

What struck me was how busy these people were. This was often their excuse for not attending their appointments: they just had so much to do! Quite how they managed to be so busy—always with no paid work, usually with no educational commitments, and often with no family commitments either—remained a mystery. There was I in my office, awaiting people who didn’t show, twiddling my thumbs, wishing desperately that I was as busy as my clients appeared to be.

This appearance of busyness is one I have encountered in many places and circumstances over the years. There were my fellow workers in that establishment, for example. I know they had just as much difficulty encouraging their clients to attend appointments as I did, but talk to them and they were always quick to tell you how busy they were.

When I was a clergyman I would often struggle to fill my time productively. I was, therefore, filled with guilt and a sense of inadequacy when confronted with the apparent busyness of my colleagues. What was I not doing that they were? Was I simply more efficient than they were, completing all the necessary work in much less time? Was I overlooking some important duties? Or were they really far less busy than they would have me believe?

The truth is probably a mixture of these things. Some things I probably didn’t do as a curate or as a chaplain that I was expected to do. I didn’t, for instance, visit every day the same people that I had visited the day before, who showed no interest in my visits; or who would tell me the same stories again. I didn’t stand around for hours in the nurses’ station ‘networking’ with staff, building ‘relationships’ with them—in fact gossiping and distracting them from their duties. I didn’t always attend the seemingly endless sequence of vital committee meetings. I didn’t always spend enough time writing reports that no one would read.

Also I have always been very efficient. I have always been able to spend half an hour on a task that might take someone else two hours. I was never inclined to extend this half hour by engaging in a very important, hour-long telephone conversation with a colleague—more ‘networking’ I failed to do. The problem with this efficiency is that it has often left me bored, at a loose end. What do I do now? The secret, I have learned from others, is, apparently, to create work. ‘I really must re-organise that filing cabinet that I re-organised last week.’ ‘I really should visit Mrs Smith again, because she seemed a little down at the service last week—and she makes lovely pumpkin scones.’ ‘I should form a committee to make sure that all our other committees are functioning efficiently.’

Busyness fills our empty spaces, warding of boredom and, perhaps, a nagging sense that what we are doing is not really achieving very much. Busyness (we hope) increases our worth and value in the eyes of others.

Much more important than busyness, of course, is productivity. I use this term with reservations, because it is used by business and government to constantly demand that more be done for less. Despite this abuse of the term, I know what gives me the greatest satisfaction. I can have a very busy morning but achieve nothing. On the other hand, I can have a quiet morning and achieve much. If I have a really productive morning—perhaps I write a very good chapter, or manage to get a huge chunk of copy editing out of the way—I feel satisfied. I can have a very busy day and feel no satisfaction at all. If I have a productive morning, perhaps it is okay to spend the afternoon reading for pleasure, or listening to music, or walking on the beach, or watching the birds chase each other among the trees. I don’t need to fill the empty time with more busyness. And I don’t have to feel guilty for not doing so.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tell me this, to show me something else.

I have written before in this blog about the much touted expression among writers: Show, don’t tell! (Here and here.) It is repeated so often, and is (or seems to be) such a key concept, that I constantly revisit it all the time in my own mind.

Anton Chekhov probably never wrote precisely these oft quoted words: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Nevertheless, this probably represents a valid distillation of what he expressed in several places, and of the way he tried to write. So how might we actually do what Chekhov suggests?

Consider this:

It was very hot, and the sun was shining brightly. Tom walked outside.

Here the author provides the reader with three pieces of information: (1) it’s hot; (2) the sun is bright; and (3) Tom goes outside. The action here is Tom’s walking outside; the rest sets the scene and provides the background. However, the same information could be conveyed to the reader within the context of the action, like this:

Outside, Tom blinked against the brightness of the sun, sweat beading on his forehead.

This is now told from Tom’s point of view. This conveys to the reader Tom’s experience of the bright sunlight and the heat. There is no external narrator—as in the first version—describing the scene ‘objectively’. The same information is conveyed, but in a more existential way. The reader is not, momentarily, lifted out of the story and provided with some ‘facts’, as in the first version. Rather, the reader experiences the reality as Tom does.

Note that this is not simply a difference between showing and telling. Both are actually telling. In the first version the reader is told that it’s hot and the sun is bright. In the second version the reader is told that Tom blinks and sweats. But that ‘information’—the relating of that experience—lets the reader know indirectly that outside, the sun is bright and it’s hot. The writer tells us that Tom is sweating to show us that it’s hot. Most importantly, rather than just giving us the facts, he conveys the effects of the heat and the light on Tom. This keeps us inside Tom’s world.

Sometimes as a writer we will want to set the scene, before plunging the reader into the heart of the action, back into the lives of the characters. Bear in mind, though, that at this moment the reader becomes an observer, rather than a participant. If that is the effect you want to achieve, that’s fine. But if you really want to immerse the reader in the story you are telling, you will try to hide yourself, as the writer, as much as possible. You can say, ‘The driveway was lined with frangipani trees’; or you can say, ‘Tom was overwhelmed by the scent of frangipani as he walked along the tree-lined driveway.’

Tell the readers one thing to show them something else.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Imaginary Friend: A Tale.

When Tom was very young, his parents weren’t concerned about his imaginary friend. From the age of about two and a half, when he was starting to put together quite complex sentences, Tom would always chatter at night in his bedroom. When he was playing with his blocks or his Play-Doh or dressing and undressing his teddy bear—Ralph—Tom would hold intense conversations. Sometimes his parents would think he was talking to Ralph, but it soon became apparent that he wasn’t.

‘We should put a jumper on Ralph,’ he might say. Or, ‘No, that will make him too hot.’

Mr and Mrs Ellwood never directly confronted Tom about this. It was cute. He would grow out of it when he had some real friends.

Tom was a little frightened at night time, alone in his room, even with the door wedged open and the night light on. It comforted him to know that Foofoo was there to keep him company. He couldn’t remember when he first became aware of Foofoo, or how he learned his name. It was easy to express his feelings and ideas to Foofoo. He always understood. It was frustrating, sometimes, that his mummy and daddy couldn’t understand what he was saying. There was never that problem with Foofoo. Having someone beside him at night; having someone to protect him from whatever lived in the darkness; having someone who could understand him. Foofoo was all these things to Tom.

When Tom started at day care, and later at pre-school, Foofoo went with him. He would often rather talk with Foofoo—tucked away in a corner—than to the other children. He would turn to Foofoo when he sensed the disapproval of others, particularly the adults. Foofoo never judged him.

His parents were becoming a little concerned.

‘He will grow out of it,’ they were assured.

‘It’s harmless’, confirmed their priest.

‘I can’t remember having an invisible, imaginary friend like that. Can you, Emma?’ Mr Ellwood asked his wife.

‘No,’ she said, ‘but apparently it’s quite common. Maybe it’s something we forget when we grow older.’

However, once Tom started school, they had reason to worry. Sometimes Tom didn’t listen to the teachers.

‘He is off somewhere else,’ the teachers would say on parent/teacher nights.

One day, when Tom was six years old, he stole a candy bar from the supermarket shelf.

‘Foofoo was hungry,’ he explained to his distraught parents.

So they talked to Tom, then. They took him to see the priest. They took him to counselling.

Tom wasn’t silly. Tom knew that Foofoo wasn’t there the way other people were there. It was just that sometimes the real world and real people were too difficult to deal with, so he would turn to Foofoo.

Lately, though, he hadn’t been scared of a night time. He was beginning to learn how to deal with the people and tasks around him, and Foofoo came to him less and less often. Even when he stole the candy bar, he knew, deep down—indeed, not so very deep down—that he was the one who wanted it, not Foofoo.

For a while longer, Foofoo was handy to have around. His imaginary friend brought him some attention. He provided him with an excuse from time to time. But pretty soon, football and video games drew his focus away from Foofoo. He began to forget him.

His parents were pleased to see him at the video game consul, or on the football field, rather than talking quietly in a corner to someone who wasn’t there.

Tom began the—sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying—process of growing up, and dealing with the real world around him.

It was about two years later when Tom, who would have been eight or nine years old, thought about Foofoo during an Easter service. He wasn’t sure why he thought of him then. The memory amused and embarrassed him a little. As he was walking home with his parents after the service, he raised the matter of Foofoo with them.

‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘my imaginary friend Foofoo?’

Mr and Mrs Ellwood shared a look and laughed a little nervously. What would they do if Foofoo returned?

‘Yes, Tom, we remember.’

He laughed at their worried expressions. ‘It’s OK. He’s not back or anything. It was a bit silly, I know.’

‘Not silly, Tom,’ assured his mother. ‘It was just something you needed as a child, I guess.’

‘Yeah. I used to be real scared sometimes... and lonely.’

‘We all are sometimes.’ His father laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘But you grew out of it.’

‘Yeah.’ Tom thought for a while. He wasn’t really sure how to ask the next question. It had been on his mind during the service. ‘Dad?’

‘What is it, Tom?’

‘I was wondering... I was wondering, why do you and Mum and Fr O’Farrell...’ Struggling, he decided to try a different tack. ‘Dad, Mum, I don’t think I want to come to church anymore.’

‘Oh Tom, why not?’ Mrs Ellwood glanced again at her husband, perhaps wishing that he would deal with this one.

‘Well, Mum, you know, you and Dad—and Fr O’Farrell... You might need God, I guess, but I don’t. I don’t think I need an imaginary friend at all anymore.’

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The in-between bits

I am still struggling at the moment with my own fictional writing. I have started several manuscripts—some are now up to twenty thousand words—but I keep getting stuck. It is ideas where I am struggling—knowing just what to write. When I have the idea I think I write it fairly well.

There is, however, one place where I struggle with how to write, as well as what to write, although they overlap to some extent. I struggle with how to write the in-between bits.

I often have some great scenes in my mind. Perhaps there will be a murder or a rape or an accident; perhaps there will be a significant meeting or parting. Several of these will constitute the key points of the narrative, from which everything else hangs. The question is, how to get from the meeting in chapter one, to the parting in chapter four. Something has to happen in between, the less exciting, more mundane moments. Some writers (as well as those who teach writing—and many publishers, apparently) seem to think it is necessary to move from one big event to the next, that there can be no let up in the action. And each big event—each explosion—has to be bigger than the last. This—some believe—is what is necessary to hold the reader’s interest.

I don’t share that view. I like quieter moments between the highlights. But writing them so that they are interesting is extremely difficult, which is perhaps why many writers just don’t try. On the other hand, some writers don’t know how to apply filters. They report every conversation, and describe every meal and bowel movement. Knowing which in-between bits to write, and how to write them so that the reader doesn’t doze off, is a real challenge. It’s here that I often come unstuck. I have a great scene, A, and a gobsmackingly brilliant scene, F, but between A and F have to be the slightly more mundane and less exciting scenes b, c, d and e. They are much more difficult to write.

These are the moments when, hopefully, the reader will gain some insights into the characters—their histories, personalities and motivation. Perhaps there is the opportunity to illustrate some social history of the day. Perhaps there is time to draw a brief but interesting portrait of a minor character. The really, really good writers know how to make the mundane interesting.

I pretty sure I’m not there yet.