Monday, November 28, 2011


There will come a time when you will be asked to read your writing aloud. You will be in a room with other people. They will stop what they are doing; they will turn their full attention on you; and they will listen as you give voice to your precious words.

Preparing for this time – reading your work aloud in private – has two benefits. First, you will learn to read in a way that is engaging and interesting. Second, you will gain a deeper insight into your own writing.

How our work sounds is not something we writer’s necessarily think about as we write. We think about punctuation and grammar, we think about syntax and sentences, but we don’t automatically think about cadence and meter. We should.

When words are read aloud, letters, punctuation and sentence-structure are replaced by subtle changes in rhythm and breath. Interesting writing – writing that is enjoyable to read – captures the nuance of spoken language. This is why listening to the spoken word can inform one’s writing in ways that reading silently cannot.

But there’s no use whispering your story to your computer screen. Engage your vocal cords, give voice to your words, listen to what they are telling you about your writing.

I have found this to be helpful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lights! Camera! Huh?

I can’t write scenes in which people are doing things. This is a new discovery for me.

Stuck for a blog idea and itching to write something, I sat down and started a short-story. The story was to take place on a bus. My main character had to get on the bus and pay for his ticket. The bus would then take off, forcing my character to stagger down the aisle while trying to find an empty seat. He would eventually find a place to sit that was next to an old man with spiky hair.

Should be easy to describe that, right?

Not for me. Turns out I’m more proficient with adjectives than adverbs. Apparently I prefer ideas to action.

I tried to write those opening man-stagers-to-empty-seat sentences. Nothing sounded right. My words sounded clunky, heavy, and, worst of all, boring. In the end I gave up.

Here’s what I wrote instead:
James sat next to a wispy haired old man and closed his eyes.
What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask. Well, nothing, if you’re writing a short-story. I’ve taken the reader straight to the action without all that unnecessary stumbling around. But what if I was writing something longer? What if I was writing a story that encompassed more than one scene? Is my character going to magically appear at the right place at the right time in every scene?

Probably not, right?

So here’s what I’ve decided to do: I am going to write that man-stagers-to-empty-seat scene. I am going to get my man on the bus and into his seat if it kills me, or him, or both of us.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

God Bless America

A large number of my readers live in the country that is the new home of the English language: the United States. These people seem to have found my work by chance, which isn’t surprising when you consider that more than half of the world’s native English speakers live in America, and most of them have access to computers.

I grew up believing that American English was inferior to the British variety. Americans, I was told, play fast and loose with the language. Americans have no real love for the subtlety of English; they do not understand its nuances.

One only has to read Shane, or To Kill a Mocking Bird, or Lake Wobegone Days, to realise that this view is wrong.

This view of language in the United States is particularly unhelpful to the aspiring author. The American book market is massive when compared to that of any other English speaking country. To ignore it is foolhardy to say the least. The American book market creates trends that influence the kinds of books that will be written in the future.

If you live outside of the United States it is worth considering whether your story will make sense in America. Did I mention that more than half the world’s native English speakers live there?

Friday, November 11, 2011

You are the Best Writer

Some writers are so good at what they do; reading their work makes me want to hang up my pen and call it a day.

But I don’t.

Overcoming the weaknesses in one’s own writing can be an enormous task. It is like climbing a mountain: you struggle you sweat, and, just as you’re approaching the top, you see that the mountain you are on is but a foothill for a much greater mountain.

Learning the art of writing takes time. The early days can be humiliating. Your little story is full of mistakes and you know it: everyone knows it. Your mistakes are the small object which, when held in front of the eye, can blot out the light of the sun.

Ah, but there it is. The aspiring author has seen the faults in his writing, but he has also seen the sun that is his story. It is this knowledge, the knowledge of the greatness of the story, which keeps him from hanging up his pen.

If you have a story to tell then nothing will prevent you from telling it. The desire to tell your story will burn within you, and you will work tirelessly until your story is told.

The movie Midnight in Paris has a wonderful scene in which the protagonist meets Earnest Hemingway. Hemingway is young and full of machismo. He tells the protagonist: “If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer…”

You are the best person to tell your story.

You always knew this.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Over the Hill and Far Away

English novelist John Galsworthy was nearly thirty before he published anything. This is what the blurb on the back of his book The Man of Property tells us. The implication is clear: writers get old early.

Great works, the books that changed your life, were probably written by reasonably young authors.

Harper Lee was 33 when To Kill a Mocking Bird was published. J.D. Salinger was 31 when Catcher in the Rye was published.

I could go on.

I have heard authors say that they felt pressure to publish before they turned 33. Jesus was 33 when he died, you see, and if one man can save humanity for all eternity in 33 years, then another should be able to knock out a great book.

There is more to it than that, of course. We humans tend to be on fire with new ideas when we are in our teens. We are idealistic and alive. This fire is already starting to cool in our twenties. We are cooling but we are learning and we are full of ambition. We began to gather the intellectual tools we will need if we are to succeed.

In our late twenties we stare into the embers of our dying passions. We stir these embers trying to encourage a fresh flame. We become driven; time is running out; we feel our uniqueness slipping away. We spend many a sleepless night trying to work out how we will share our passion with the world.

This is make-or-break time. This is the time for foolish risks. This is the time when he (or she) who dares wins.

This is the time when we humans are most likely to have the combination of passion, motivation and drive that leads to the creation of great novels. These things also give the young writer the pluck to believe that their work should be published. Sometimes they are right.

If one reaches their mid-thirties and still hasn’t been published – well – there’s always the garden, isn’t there?

C.S. Lewis was in his fifties when The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe was published.

There is still hope for me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Writers' Group

A light clicked on automatically as I approached the old house. I instinctively froze in my tracks and felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I took a deep breath and tried to relax before proceeding to the front door.

There was a light on inside. I peered through a screen door and wondered what I was letting myself in for. In my hand I held three of my most recent pieces of writing, a small black notebook, and a blue ballpoint pen.

“Come in,” someone called from inside.

I opened the door and stepped into a well-lit kitchen. The room had a farmhouse feel that appealed to me and reminded me of kitchens I’d been in in the past.

I began to relax.

A small woman with welcoming eyes entered the kitchen from an adjacent room. She introduced herself and told me to make myself a cup of tea. We chatted for a while and she described how the writers' group worked.

It became clear that no one else was going to be joining us so we sat down, sipped tea and talked about writing.

She read me a couple of her stories. One was a twisted tale with a fairly obvious twist. The other was a fine story with a slightly incomplete ending.

I told her I liked her stories and she seemed pleased.

She asked me if I wanted to read something I had written. I chose a story that told of a moment straight after a small accident.

I read the story nervously and perhaps a bit too quickly.

I finished and looked up expectantly.

“You started a lot of sentences with ‘I’,” she informed me.

“Yes,” I replied, “I thought that the protagonist would be thinking about themselves a fair bit straight after an accident. Also, I wanted short sentences. I wanted Subject-Verb sentences. I wanted punch.”

She was unconvinced.

“Well,” she told me in a conciliatory tone, “it has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

She didn’t like my story. She didn’t get my story. I was crestfallen.

I wasn’t invited to read another story.

We talked for a bit longer and then decided to leave. I picked up my notebook and pen. I picked up my unwanted stories and headed towards the door. She said she would see me next week. I wondered if I would come back.

Rain was falling as I turned my car towards home. My windscreen-wipers tried furiously to keep the rain from within their domain. I stared out into the blackness and thought about my unliked story.

I was hurt, I realised, but my determination was not diminished. And, as I walked up the dark steps towards my house, I whispered to the night: I am a writer, whatever anyone else thinks.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Port of last Resort

Some people feel that creating an amazing novel is their last hope of doing something truly great. They want to paint their name in big bold letters across the sky. I understand this feeling.

When I was young I could run fast. The speed in my legs was the manifestation of the thunder in my heart. The world needed to know this about me. I dreamt of running and the world cheering me on.

This was not to be. Others overtook me.

When I was a teenager I played the guitar. One night I dreamt I was standing on the precipice of a great mountain. I strummed my guitar and music shock the earth like a mighty earthquake. The people of the world looked up and saw me. They were in awe of my enormous power. They cheered for me. I looked down at my feet and saw that I was floating on air.

Then I woke up.

When I was in my twenties I started a small business. I started a small business that was really the seed of the world’s largest business: at least that’s what I thought. I dreamt of success. I dreamt of people wanting to know how I’d managed to achieve so much from such humble beginnings.

My business folded after six months.

When I was in my thirties I found myself sitting behind a desk chained to a dead end job. I would become a writer, I decided. I would write a novel that would shape the world. I would tell a story so real, so relevant, that the world could not help but notice me. I would be compared to some of the greatest people who ever lived.

I would accept these comparisons.

I started to type. My main character began to take shape. He was a small and shadowy creature, hardly human at all. He was afraid of the world but, even so, he had thunder in his heart. I wondered where this character was coming from. Who was the person I was writing about? I reached out a metaphorical hand to him. He looked up at me and, for the first time, I saw his face.

It was my own.

Some people feel that creating an amazing novel is their last hope of doing something truly great. Perhaps they should think twice?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Twilight Paper

I don’t want to read Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ quadrilogy. She would not be surprised to hear me say this: I am not a teenage girl; I am not a woman wishing to relive the high emotion and angst of my younger years.

I haven’t read any of the Twilight books, but I hear that they have sold very well. Some readers will have neglected their homework or skipped school in order to read these books. Some readers may even have neglected a screaming child just so they could find out what happened next.

There were people, respectable adults, who bought these books in electronic form so they could read them in public. These people sat in the park, reading Twilight, safe in the knowledge that there was no book cover to give them away. Their secret was buried deep within the circuits of their eReaders. Their secret was buried deep within the circuits of their own minds.

Lost in the pages of a Twilight novel, these devoted readers had escaped the mediocrity of their lives. They had become a part of something truly worthwhile: a universe-rending tragedy.

This is something most readers of fiction can understand.

My attitude towards the Twilight series hasn’t always been so relaxed. I was a scoffer, I admit it. But then I thought: who am I to sit in judgement of 116 million readers? It was then that I reached a sense of peace with the whole Twilight phenomena. This peace was sorely tested when, one evening, I was sitting in a movie theatre, waiting for my movie to start, when a trailer for the latest Twilight movie begin to play.

Forever is Just the Beginning, it declared without offering any further explanation as to how this might be.

No, it isn’t, I grumbled.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. – Psalm 4:4
In a recent interview American novelist, Anita Shreve, was asked if she agreed with fellow author Jonathan Franzen, when he said: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”

Shreve answered by saying: “…the word ‘still’ in that sentence is the most interesting to me because there is a place of deep stillness.”

Shreve says that finding stillness is an important part of her day. I think I understand what she is talking about.

It is like this: a group of sprinters are waiting for the starter to fire his pistol; they are silent and focused. The crowd is also silent. They are full of expectation. Time stands still.

Stillness is the moment before the starter fires his pistol.

Stillness is the moment before the Big-Bang creates the Universe.

Stillness is the space between the past and the future, and in stillness we find freedom from entanglement in both past and future. Stillness is the point from which an infinite number of possibilities could arise, but only one will.

Some storytellers pause in the moment of stillness. They reach into the pool of possibilities keeping their hand steady so as not to upset the surface. And from that pool they extract one single strand - a chain of events: a story.

Anyone who knows stillness can write their own story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Notebooks can be a Barrier

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Melbourne to attend a training course. My wife and I used to live in Melbourne so I revisited a couple of our favourite restaurants while I was there.

One of the best vegetarian restaurants in the world – well, in my world at least - is Soul Food Café on Smith Street in Fitzroy. I want to tell you that Soul Food Café, or Soul Food as it is affectionately called, is bohemian, but I don’t really know what that word means. Let me say this: Soul Food is a magnet for hippies of all ages. If you have dreadlocks and wear tie-dyed clothes you would not feel out of place there. If you forgot to change out of your slippers before going out to dinner, head over to Soul Food, you’ll fit right in.

I am not exactly what you would call a hippie. As I sat down behind a small table I realised that I did not fit right in.

I ordered the ‘Haystack’ and a salad. I pulled out my black notebook, the one I use for quick observations, observations that may later become the basis for a short-story, or a blog. I looked around, ready to make an observation or two before my meal arrived. It was then that I realised that I was not alone in my observing. There were a few of us, each sitting behind our own small tables, each with our little black notebooks, each ready to make quick and relevant observations about the world around us.

I saw myself in the faces of these other people.

I hastily put my notebook back into my bag and tried to look normal. I sat staring at the surface of the table in front of me, my mind racing.

I wondered: had I brought that black notebook to the café as a kind of crutch? Was it a thing with which I could pretend to have a purpose; a thing with which I could hide my trepidation at being in a cool café on my own? Was my black notebook a barrier, a barrier to the real experience of being in the café, a barrier behind which I could safely observe the world in the third person?

I was afraid the answer to these questions was yes.

Soon my meal arrived. I ate it. It was delicious. When it was finished I surreptitiously pulled out my black notebook and wrote, ‘Notebooks can be a barrier – blog concept?’

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I have just started to read The Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel by Thomas Monteleone.

I hadn’t intended to read this book. The author’s conversational style drew me in. Before I knew it I was up to page 10 and couldn’t put the damn thing down.

My only gripe so far is the author’s suggestion that some aspects of the writing process are down to the readers ‘intuition’. In my opinion, authors should use the concept of intuition in How-To guides in the same way a Monopoly player would use the ‘Get out of jail free card’: only when in real need.

I am currently reading the section within this book that discusses ‘Best Seller’ lists. I have an inbuilt aversion to bestselling novels; I am not sure why this is the case. I have listened to and loved chart-topping music. I have watched and enjoyed box-office smashing movies. But still the idea of bestselling books irks me.

There are two possible reasons why I don’t like bestselling novels: I am jealous; I am a complete snob. Both of these things could be true.

Or maybe I don't like best sellers because this is what I am told by my intuition?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Let’s say you’ve just finished J.R.R Tolkien’s epic fantasy ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and you want to read more of the same sort of thing. You could perform an Internet search on the word Tolkienesque, but you would be slugged with over 90,000 results. Perhaps a better search might be A style reminiscent of Tolkien, which returns a mere 3,000 results.

But do you really want to read something that is an imitation of an earlier author's work?

The book marketers say yes. You want to read a book that is very much like something you’ve read before.

You want to read a book in which Krodo, a short statured creature from a mythical land, goes on a quest to destroy an amulet that has amazing powers but a link with pure evil. There will be a tavern in this book and a long bearded stranger. There will be frozen nights sleeping under stars followed by a night in a huge mansion. There will be a refreshing bath and new clothes. These clothes will come from a mysterious but friendly stranger. This stranger will have the power to help Krodo in his quest, but will also issue a grave warning.

Okay, so you probably don’t want to read about Krodo. And, to be honest, I don’t want to write about him. But think about that earlier statistic: 90,000 results for Tolkienesque. You have to look at a number like that and think about how much interest there must be in the genre.

The aspiring author needs to think about who his readers will be. He can’t just dismiss a huge potential market for his work. One should not be too precious.

‘m I precious?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Novel and the Deep Blue Sea

I have written almost 100 short-stories over the past six years but my goal has always been to write a novel. Writing short-stories is a way of practicing the craft of writing without the enormous time commitment that a novel demands.

I used to think that writing a novel was much like reading a novel, except in reverse: the story would spool out my mind and onto the page. This story would be a secret that I shared with the page until I was ready to share it with the world. This is not the case.

I am beginning to realise that writing a novel is not just a matter of time. It requires one to devote a portion of their brain to the task. I have been dreaming of words. I have dreamt that I am trying to fit sentences together. They resist each other like similar poles of two magnets.

I used to think that once I began a novel, with every word I typed I would feel a little closer to my goal. The opposite is true. I feel like I am swimming away from a comfortable shore. Every word is a stroke further out into an empty ocean. I may be swimming towards something that is just over the horizon. I do not feel this. I feel like I am out of my depth.

I have some determination that my novel will not join the millions of unfinished novels that abound in this world. And so I swim onwards. I swim through a sea of words. I cannot tell where this will lead me. I seem to have no choice but to continue.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Feel of an eBook

An electronic book reader, or eReader as they are sometimes called, is a small handheld device that has a screen which is roughly the same size as a page in a paperback novel. The eReader enables its user to open text files and read them in a way that is not dissimilar to reading a paperback.

The eReader has a button you press when you want to see the next page. It may also have a button that lets you save your place. The eReader has a menu that lists all the books that are stored on it; from there you can choose which book you are going to read next.

There are thousands of books available for free on the Internet. You can store hundreds of books on your eReader at any one time.

Sometimes people ask me why I own an eReader. I tell them that I can download classic novels for free. I tell them that I can store lots of really big books on my eReader. I tell them that the battery lasts for ages and the words on the screen look like ink on paper. I tell them that the eReader is easy to hold, perhaps easier than a normal novel.

“But don’t you miss the feel of a paperback,” I am asked.

This question makes me think back to the first book I read on my eReader: Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina is not War and Peace, but it is still an arm achingly large tome that was not designed for bedtime reading. Reading Anna Karenina on my eReader was easy. There was no arm-ache, just 100% pure tortured-Russian-genius.

Do I miss the feel of a normal book? Well, no, because here’s the thing: owning an eReader doesn’t preclude you from feeling normal books if you want to.

In summary: owning an eReader can make it easier to read books; an eReader can make hundreds of books available to you for free; if you own an eReader you can still feel old paperbacks whenever you want to.

I’m struggling to find a downside.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The other day I watched a short video clip in which U2’s ‘The Edge’ showed how he created the guitar solo for the hit song ‘With or Without You’.

The music itself is not complicated. Even so, it can still make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on end.

At first glance Paul Cézanne’s painting ‘Still Life with Apples’ is equally simple. Up close you see a series on not especially complicated brushstrokes: the method of creation. But stand back and you see life captured on canvas.

In both of these examples the intention of the artist comes through in the finished product, despite the apparent simplicity of their method. Of course the method only appears simple until one tries to reproduce it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Receiving rejection letters is an inevitable step in the publishing process. At least I hope so, for this is the step on which I sit.

A long time ago I walked out into world of words ready to prove that pen is mightier than sword. I was dressed in the pure white of the idealistic. I was untouchable. I was above the trials and tribulations of mere mortals. This feeling did not last long. Rejection came and with it the foulest of demons: reality.

However, rejection does have an upside. Once the sting wears of, you go back and have a look at that rejected work. This is the first time you have read that story since you sent it to the publishers. You were nervous then; you sent that story on its way and haven’t dared look at it since. But now, now that it has returned home with its tail between its legs, you take it in both hands and you read it with a strong heart. You look at it with a ‘what is the worst that can happen now’ eye. You see the stories faults and you see the good; and you have learnt a valuable lesson.

If you’ve had a rejection letter - or even a rejection email - you’re in extremely good company - and I don’t just mean me. An Internet search shows that most established authors received a rejection letter or two along the way.

One particularly famous contemporary author had 12 rejection letters before finally getting her work published. I wonder if those rejection letters helped her view her work in a more critical way; helped her hone her style; helped her find better ways to say what she wanted to say. This author was tenacious. She believed in her story and went on to become one of the most successful authors of our time.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Going Online

I have been writing short-stories and posting them on the Internet for almost six years. This has not led to a lucrative publishing contract.

Posting online enables a writer to get their work in front of an international audience, especially if their family lives overseas.

Your friends and family will go online and read your work. They will read your work and they will say nice things about it. They will tell you that you should be published. You will believe them and you will wait for a publisher to call you.

If you have time you will find other writers online and you will read their work. You will read their work and you will say nice things about it. They will then visit your website. They will read your work and they will say nice things about it.

These people are not publishers. They are like you. They write stories. They want to be published.

So here’s the thing: if you want to be published you have to submit your work to a publisher. You have to be prepared for them to tell you that your writing is not what they are looking for right now, and you have to resist the urge to tell them that your mother liked it.

You have to see posting online for what it is: a good way to have a small group of biased people read your stories. This is not all bad.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Some people have stereo systems that cost more than I earn in a year. These people have incredibly sensitive ears. Their ears know if a sound signal has passed along a cheap copper-cable or a cable made from pure gold. They prefer the latter.

When I first heard about these people – audiophiles they call themselves – I was impressed. Imagine having a stereo worth more than a German car. That would be something, I thought. But then I thought about it a little longer, and I realised that this love of pure sound is actually a burden.

Imagine if you could only enjoy music if you were sitting in front of your expensive stereo system. You might be invited out to a concert but you would have to decline. “No thanks,” you would say, “the sound quality wouldn’t be good enough.”

You might go to a friend’s place. She is listening to a stereo that only cost her six month’s pay. The inferior sound quality would really take the shine off your evening.

I am not an audiophile, and for this I count myself lucky. I listen to music on a portable MP3 player through two dollar headphones. I am afraid, however, that I am becoming something far worse. I am becoming a lover of words. I am becoming a logophile.

I am afraid of this because I know that like most forms of love, this love has a dark side. We lovers of words may think that our love has set us free, but we are bound brothers: we are bound indeed. We think that our words allow us to sore with the eagles. Let me tell you friends, this is an allusion. We are deep, deep down, in our personal dungeons scrabbling after words.

Yes, we are in our dungeons. We are typing or reading. We think that we have found heaven through words.

Outside the sun is shining.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mary Teaches Grammar

I learnt to read from books about Mary and Bill.

Mary ate an egg.

Bill kicked a ball.

These books were designed to introduce young readers to letters and words. These books could also be used to teach grammar.

Take the first sentence above as an example: ‘Mary ate an egg’. This is known as a simple sentence. It has a subject: Mary; a verb: ate; and an object: an egg. Most simple sentences follow a similar format to this.

‘Mary’ is a proper noun. Proper nouns, as you probably know, are people, places or things. In English we capitalise the first letter of proper nouns.

‘Ate’ is a verb. Verbs tell us what the subject of the sentence (Mary) is doing to the object (an egg). Verbs can also give us a clue as to when this action took place. In other words, verbs can show tense. In the sentence ‘Mary ate an egg,’ the verb ‘ate’ tells us that the Mary/egg encounter occurred some time in the past.

You can learn all this, and a lot more, from the first line of the first page of the first book you ever read. But, if you’re like me, you probably didn’t.

If you are me you are trying to learn the fundamentals of grammar as an adult. You are struggling with this.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Emperor's New Lingo

A quick Internet search reveals that CommVault Systems Inc. hold the trademark ‘Solving Forward’. I don’t know what this combination of words means.

My mind tries to decipher ‘Solving Forward’ and immediately tells me that the closest term it has encountered in the past is ‘Solvent Sniffing’. I wonder if the good people at CommVault were abusing inhalants when they came up with their new slogan.

‘Solving Forward’ seems to be closely related to another well-loved phrase: going forward. Going forward has been turning perfectly good sentences into tautologies for far too long. “We have the best solution for your business going forward.”

These phrases come from the Emperor’s New Clothes School of Languages. Many may snigger at the use of such phrases; but few of us have been brave enough to step forward and say: “The Manager is speaking gibberish!”

A work friend and I used to laugh at the use of management speech in our company. Then, one day, my friend was elevated to the position of manager. He walked into my office with a glazed look in his eye. He started to talk. Something was different. He told me that he now knew what he would be doing with his career going forward. I started to laugh but had to stop: this was no joke. My friend had become one of them.

Remain vigilant. Band together and rise-up against the tyranny of those who seek to oppress us with their nonsensical slogans.

If we do not act now there may not be a rational future to go forward into.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pen, Paper, Rock

In some ways pen-and-paper still beats word-processor.

When I write with a pen I am less inclined to go back, less inclined to edit-as-I-go. When I write with a pen I will plough on even if I know that what I’m writing is jumbled. I tend to focus on what I am about to write instead of what I have just written. When I write like this - thinking about what is ahead instead of what is behind - ideas evolve and new ideas present themselves.

You can achieve the same thing with a word-processor, but it takes a bit more effort. You need to resist the urge to go back; resist the urge to edit-as-you-go. Writing is about putting into words what is in your mind. You need to stay with what is in your mind and not allow yourself to become distracted by what is on the screen.

Setting a word target may help you stay on track. Tell yourself that you will write 200 words in 15 minutes or less. You may be used to spending 15 minutes writing your opening sentence. Those 15 minutes could produce the perfect first sentence for an idea that will go nowhere. But, if you use them in the right way, those minutes may produce a couple of hundred words that will take your idea in a new direction.

So let your words lead you; you might be pleasantly surprised by where you end up.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Spoiler Alert

Reading the final pages of a story before you begin to read it may enhance your reading experience. This is the finding of researchers at the University of California.

It turns out that suspense is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people are only prepared to make a tough journey if they know that everyone will get to the destination in one piece.

I get that.

Recently my wife and I watched a movie about corruption in the US government. The movie had pace, it had dialogue, it had plot. But then, out of the blue, one of the characters travelled to Iraq. The directors got out the Steadicam. They followed that character down a debris strewn street in Baghdad. I was with that character. I was in Baghdad. I wasn’t safe. Someone was going to get hurt. Some innocent person was going to be blown up by an unexpected ordnance. I was nervous. I reached for the movie’s cover. I rechecked the rating. I reread the back cover.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” I told my wife. I didn’t feel fine. “I’m pretty sure no one gets blown up unexpectedly in this movie.”

I wasn’t at all sure.

But I was right: no one was blown up. Had I known that that scene, the edgy guy-walking-down-street-in-Iraq scene, would turn out okay, I would have enjoyed the movie more.

The scene made me realise two things - two things that apply equally to story writing and film making. First, suspense is a strong flavour: a little goes a long way. Second, if you don’t want your reader flicking to the end of your tale, give them a clue that lets them know that things are going to be okay.

If you’re reading this sentence before you read what's written above, let me tell you: it’s going to be okay.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

War and Punishment

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

When I was a child I loved books in which the sun shone brightly upon the land and storms, should they come, would pass over quickly. When I was a child I loved books in which justice was dispensed swiftly and good triumphed over evil.

When I was a teenager I read books in which shadows stretched long and dark over the land. When I was a teenager I read books in which the difference between good and evil was hard to discern.

These are the books that serious adults read, I thought.

I wanted to be a serious adult.

I wanted to read about dystopias and political systems gone wrong. I wanted to read about the breakdown of society and the persecution of the Small Man.

I wanted to read books that highlighted the gloomy reality of the world around us, and I didn’t have to look far for such books. Gloomy books, books in which much goes wrong and little goes well, abound amongst the classics.

Now that I am older I wonder if these books paint an accurate picture of the world in which we live.

Some argue that bleak books help us look with fresh eyes upon the glory and splendour of our free world. But do these books really perform that function? Do dystopian novels really work on the human mind in a liberating way, in a way that makes us see that a human life is worth having?

I’m not sure.

So, now that I’m a man, I am questioning the themes of the books of my childhood and the novels of my teens. I am questioning these books and thinking about this quote from novelist E.B. White.

All I hoped to say in my books… is that I love the world.

I wonder why I haven’t read more books that are based on this sentiment. After all, is there anything else to say?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Language Log

If you, like me, day-dreamed your way through High School English, then you’ll probably find the ‘Language Log’ website more than a little intimidating.

I hope you do.

I hope you do, because I don’t want to be alone in not understanding the difference between a fricative and an unvoiced-consonant.

Life is lonely enough.

Life is lonely enough without the realisation that those people who focused during English class – the nerds – have now gathered together. They have formed a ‘Word Nerd’ collective and they are laughing at people like me. They are laughing at me because I thought I knew about language until I visited their website.

Those word nerds were sitting in the dark, trying to stifle a giggle. They flicked on the light and started laughing and pointing as soon as I typed the URL for their website ( into my browser.

I froze like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. I tried to back away slowly, but it was too late: they sensed my weakness, my lack of linguistic knowledge, and they pounced.

Well, they didn’t actually pounce. We’re talking about me visiting a website here. But I was intimidated, and I think they knew it.

They may not have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


My father used to read to me before I went to sleep. One night he decided I was ready to progress beyond The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar and The Many Mice of Mr Brice. I was ready for the world of chapters.

I felt ready: I was four-and-a-half, and I was very big.

Dad took a chapter book from the shelf and showed me the cover. I could see straight away that the book was much longer than my previous favourite book.

This will take ages, I thought, I might get to stay awake until morning!

A cousin had told me that if you stayed up long enough, night would turn into morning. I was sceptical but keen to try it.

Dad lay down on the bed beside me. He turned back the colourful book-cover. He turned three of four pages and began to talk. I say talk because I couldn’t believe that anyone, not even my father - who was pretty amazing -, could interpret the jumble of symbols I was looking at.

Once there were four children whose names were-

“What are those,” I interrupted pointing at the closely packed words.

“Those are the words that make up this story, Matthew,” Dad answered.

“What does that one say?” I asked in a disbelieving tone.

Peter,” Dad replied.

“What about that one?”

London,” Dad answered.

“What about –“

Dad cut me short.

“How about we just read the story?”

I agreed.

Dad read on. This was a story about a magical world, and while some of the words were a bit big for me, I could feel that world weaving its magic web around me. I was entranced.

Dad read for about ten minutes. Then he started to get tired. He started to yawn and read at the same time; I didn’t like it when he did that. Then he said: “Well, time for sleep. Goodnight.”

“Wait!” I demanded. “Is that the end? Did you read that word?” I pointed at a word.

“We’ve finished the chapter,” Dad answered. “I’ll read you some more tomorrow night.”

I protested. I complained. This just wasn’t fair. There was more story but I had to wait a whole day to hear it? Did Dad know how long a day was?

This was unprecedented!

“Go to sleep now, Matthew,” Dad demanded.

“I hate chapter books,” I informed him.

“No more tomorrow night then?” Dad asked.

I didn’t think that question warranted an answer.

I’m sure I saw Dad grinning to himself as he turned off the bedroom light. He had me hooked and he knew it.

Friday, September 23, 2011


I am intrigued by the number of movies that include struggling authors as characters.

A recently released movie kicks off by introducing the hero: an author struggling to write his first novel. He is down on his luck. But then, something happens. The author has a rush of inspiration. He is brilliant. He is writing a novel overnight. He is writing a brilliant novel in record time.

He finishes his brilliant written-in-record-time novel. He is amazing. The world thinks he is amazing. He moves on. He is not an author any more: he is a stockbroker.

Hang on. What?

He is a stockbroker now because, let’s face it, brilliant people are stockbrokers, not authors.

This movie is based on a first novel and it starts with an author trying to write his first novel.

I can imagine the real life author sitting in front of his computer thinking, “What am I going to write?”. He does this day-after-day.

He writes a few sentences and then deletes them. He starts to panic. He starts to get that feeling you get when you have an assignment due in and you haven’t done any work yet. He gets this feeling even though no one is telling him to write a novel.

He starts to get desperate. He starts to type:

Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blaaaaaaaaaaaah.

He stops. He gets up from his desk. He makes himself a cup of something warm. He sits down in front of his computer again. He thinks about what he is doing. He types:

Bradley was sitting at his desk, staring at a blank screen, when his girlfriend called…

Modern movies are full of characters who are authors that can't write. That just seems a little bit too easy to me; a little bit too obvious. The fact that these characters know that they are living a cliché doesn’t make them any less cliché.

But then, who am I to talk? Not an author who has had their first novel turned in to a Hollywood movie, that’s for sure.

It was a pretty good movie, by the way.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Poetry, in my experience, can be impenetrable, it can be esoteric, it can be self-indulgent, and it can be overly sentimental. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of poetry. I believe I’m not alone in my suspicion.

There was a time when poetry ruled the English speaking world. People at that time saw poetry as having charisma and life, intelligence and feeling, elements which they saw as lacking in prose. At that time many considered prose to be, well, prosaic.

I think our forefathers were wrong about prose. But perhaps there is more to poetry than I had given it credit for. Perhaps my dislike of poetry was caused by my reading the wrong poetry.

Good poetry, in my opinion, is that which helps us see the mundane world in a magical way. It can illuminate us or give us a sense of comfort.

‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Coleridge was enforced reading when I was in school. I still remember this stanza:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

My mind finds this combination of words utterly captivating.

I am beginning to realise that there is a lot the writer of prose can learn from the poets – the good ones, that is.

The time has come for me to add poetry to my reading list.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dissecting Soap-Bubbles

Analysing one’s own emotions - trying to put them into words - can be like using a scalpel to dissect soap-bubbles. Trying to label a feeling is a sure fire way of destroying it.

Writers don’t generally describe feelings. Instead they describe emotional situations and rely on their readers ability to interpret those situations in the intended way. The writer still has to understand the emotion that they are trying to evoke. They have to understand the essence of the emotion and its causes.

Good emotionally evocative writing doesn’t happen by accident; it takes time and often requires the writer to delve deep within themself. The process of writing this kind of prose can force a writer perilously close to the point at which they might be tempted to minimise and label their own feelings.

For some writers, trying to capture emotion in their work, particularly a negative emotion, might lead them to truly feeling that emotion for the first time. The process of writing in this way can be fraught; but it can also be cathartic and therapeutic; it can lead to self-knowledge.

Perhaps it is something everyone should attempt.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Gorse Language

Gorse is an unfriendly bush with prickles instead of leaves. It has long been used as a hedging shrub in England and was brought to New Zealand in the mid 1800’s for this purpose. However, farmers quickly learnt that, when grown in New Zealand, gorse wouldn’t confine itself to neat rows. Gorse became a major weed which now covers almost 5% of New Zealand’s usable land.

My childhood home was on one side of a steep valley, a valley whose slopes were almost completely covered in gorse. In spring the gorse would array itself in an abundance of delicate flowers and the valley outside our windows would turn from dark green to bright sunny-yellow.

Many years later I noticed that gorse, the enemy of many New Zealand farmers, was the friend of young native trees. The young trees would grow beneath the protective branches of the gorse bush. They would grow up through the gorse, and the gorse around the mature trees would diminish beneath their new masters.

More recently I have learnt that gorse is a legume, and, like many legumes, it is nitrogen fixing. Gorse not only protects young native trees, it prepares the soil for them as well.

Gorse is a complex character: a weed that heals the land.

There may be times when you feel that your writing is nothing but word weeds. Perhaps, from another angle, your words are a sunny-yellow valley. Or perhaps the word weeds are just the first step, they are the nursery from which giants will arise.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Write Funk

One way to tackle thoughts you can’t let go of – the thoughts that keep you up at night – is to state the facts.

I have been reading a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) resource that recommends taking an objective look at your problems; be like a Reporter and record the facts. Taking an objective look at the facts can help you untangle yourself from the emotions that surround tricky problems.

You can even take this a step further: write your problem into a short newspaper article.

Here’s an example:

A simple car service went wrong for Perth resident, Matthew Dalton, when the garage he took his car to failed to complete the agreed service.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Dalton. “They should’ve told me they weren’t able to finish the work.”

Dalton is accusing the garage of charging him a service fee for balancing and rotating his cars tyres, work Dalton says was not done.

Dalton noticed that something was not right when he saw his car in the collection area.

“It should’ve been cleaned as part of the service but it wasn’t,” said Dalton. “I had a look around the car and noticed that the wheels hadn’t been rotated and there was a grease stain on the backseat.”

A spokesman for the garage says that they are sorry this has occurred.

“Sometimes things slip through the cracks,” the spokesmen said. “Obviously we will do our best to rectify the situation for Mr Dalton.”

Dalton says that he feels that this is a poor excuse, but he is prepared to give the garage a chance to put things right.

Writing can help you deal with your problems.

Is there anything it can’t do?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


You are less likely to accomplish your goals if you tell other people about them. This is the finding of psychology professor, Peter Gollwitzer.

What happens is this: you set yourself a goal – you’re going to be a novelist –; you tell your buddies your goal and they say, “Wow, that’s awesome dude - you’d be really good at that”; their praise makes you feel good about yourself; this good feeling tricks your brain into believing it has achieved its goal; you’re now less likely to do the work necessary to actually achieve your goal.

It would have been better for you if your friends had laughed at you and told you that you’ll never make it.

“I’ll show you,” you would say. And you would put your heart and soul into becoming a novelist, spurred on, at least in part, by a desire to prove your friends wrong.

The brain sure is a tricky thing. For example, I really felt like I’d achieved something once I’d finished putting together my ‘writer’s blog’ website. Good for me, I thought, I am finally doing something towards my goal of becoming a novelist. But, of course, setting up a blog is not really a step towards becoming a novelist.

It seems there is no formula for success. However, perhaps being aware of some of the pitfalls one may encounter on the path towards one’s goal will improve the chances of arriving at the destination.

Peter Gollwitzer’s research on ‘how goals and plans affect cognition,’ is summarised by Derek Sivers in a short talk he gave to in July 2010. It’s worth watching.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Think and Grow Lazy

Yesterday I started a new notebook. The notebook was a Christmas gift from one of my brothers ten years ago. Ten years ago I made a note to myself on the front page which reads like this:

Between you and me, I have always fancied myself a writer, an inspirer of hearts. This despite the fact I cannot spell.

My cheeks coloured as I read this wee note from my younger self. The original contains a large number of spelling mistakes, which gives validity to one of the notes assertions. But the first part, the bit about being a writer, that was a complete fabrication.

As far as I can recall I hadn’t done any writing ten years ago. I didn’t even think about writing. Apparently I was too busy deluding myself. In fact it was a good five years before I made my first attempt at writing a short-story.

My brush with ‘The Ghost of Christmas Past’ made me wonder what else I’ve been kidding myself about: that I might be a published author one day? Is this something I have been telling myself which, in another ten years’ time, I will have done nothing to achieve?

Ah, and if I had grabbed a pen and paper ten years ago - started to learn how to write - where would I be now?

I can only wonder.

Sigmund Freud said that:

“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”

This is advice I intend to take. At the very least it will save me from future encounters with a smug former self.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hug a Politician

In 2006, a teenage boy walked up to Australian Prime Minister of the time, John Howard, and gave him a hug. Howard was strolling along the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River when this happened.

There were a couple of remarkable things about this incident. First, John Howard was surrounded by members of the Secret Service who should have prevented this hug from happening. Second, photos revealed that the boy, who, despite his young age, was considerably taller than Howard, was holding a sharp screwdriver at the time.

But it was okay. The boy just happened to have the screwdriver in his hand when he saw the very huggable Mr Howard taking his morning walk. No one was hurt. In fact people laughed. Australians congratulated themselves for living in a country in which a young man has the freedom to walk up to the Prime Minister and give him (or her) a hug.

Recently, a relation of mine, exercising his right to speak freely on political matters, told me this joke:

Prime Minister Gillard and opposition leader Abbott were seated next to each other on an aeroplane.

Abbott said, “I could throw a cheque for $1000 out the window and make one person happy.”

To which Gillard replied, “I could throw 10 $100 notes out the window and make 10 people happy.”

Another passenger overheard this exchange and added “I could throw the two of you out the window and make everyone happy.”

Sometimes a joke, like a hug, can show one the truth. By these two things – the joke and the hug – I was reminded that, for all their spin, politicians are just people.

Politicians are people but, even though we can hug the Prime Minister or make a joke at her expense, we still treat them as if they are superhuman. We let politicians make our decisions for us, even when we don’t believe those decisions are in the best interests of the majority.

You don’t have to wave a placard or hug the Prime Minister to make a difference. You can tell a joke or write a letter to your local MP. You can have your say from the comfort of your own home.

Now that’s freedom.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Language Barricade

It is not money that makes the world go around: it is language. Without language, without the ability to communicate ideas, who would know that a piece of paper could hold enormous value?

For those who have learnt that a piece of paper can hold enormous value, money is language. Money, as they say, talks.

And like money, language, or at least your knowledge of language, can either help you or hinder you, as you travel through life.

Your language may be a barrier to getting what you want, or it may help you open doors.

Biologist, Mark Pagel, points out that language barriers have their uses. For example, if I’m talking to my buddies about a spear technology that I’ve invented, I don’t want some sneaky – ah – person from another village listening in and stealing my idea.

This example may seem unusual in the modern world. We don’t think about people stealing ideas: we live in a world that has elaborate systems that ensure the creator of an idea gets the credit they deserve. Well, most of the time anyway.

So, in the past, the language barrier may have helped us protect our technology without the need for lawyers.

But even today, and even amongst those who speak the same language, there can be barriers. Language can be a kind of code spoken amongst an elite few.

Jargon, legal terms, religious language, class and regional accents, separate those in the know (those in the group) from those who belong outside (those who should be treated with suspicion and, perhaps, derision).

Anyway, once you know there is a barrier in front of you, you can work out how to: remove it, get around it, or ignore it.

Just don’t expect me to share my Brachion 5000 spear technology with you willingly.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Not Novel

I am trying to write a novel.

I am bending over my keyboard trying to turn an abstract idea into words: lots of words.

I am typing. I am sweating.

I am not meeting my word target.

I am experiencing the same feelings I used to have as a child: I have not finished my homework. I am incapable of finishing my homework.

I am incapable.

I am battling against the feeling of being incapable. I am trying to turn off my inner critic. I am trying to be cool – Clint Eastwood cool.

I am not succeeding.

I am coming to the realisation that the reason I have put off trying to write a novel for so long is that I am terrified of letting go of my dream: my dream of writing a really great novel.

I am coming to the realisation that I may never write a really great novel.

I am not Isaac Asimov, whose writings are archived in some fancy place and take up seventy-one meters of shelf space.

I am not that young person - that author ten years younger than me - who recently received an award for her novel. I am sure her novel is actually quite awful.

I am full of jealousy.

I am full of jealousy: how mediocre.

I am a mediocre person pushing against my own mediocrity. I am a mediocre person clinging to mediocre dreams.

I am trying to write a novel.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In the Beginning

The book of John, which forms part of the Christian New Testament, begins like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The author of this text, John, is saying that Jesus is the Word of God.

You see, the early Christians had a bit of a problem: if Jesus and God were one and the same, who was running the shop while Jesus was on Earth? John starts his book - his Gospel - by answering that question. He compares the relationship between Jesus and God to the relationship between a speaker and her words.

John’s analogy was clever: you don’t need to believe in God – or in Jesus for that matter – to understand it. You use words, and by using words, you have experienced the power of the unseen to perform action at a distance.

Today, almost two thousand years after John wrote his Gospel, many of us take our own words for granted. And so John’s explanation of the relationship between God and Jesus, now works in reverse to remind us of the relationship we have with our words.

During his talk, biologist Mark Pagel, encouraged his audience to think about all the man-made objects that surround them. Each object, Pagel said, started as an idea in someone’s head. That idea was transferred to other people through language. It was in this way that the object took form.

Words are a kind of everyday magic; the kind that is easily explained - easily dismissed. Nevertheless, words are magic; how they are used is up to you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The End is Just the Beginning

You are ready to write. You have a rock solid story idea. You have your characters defined. You’ve got one or two punchy sentences lined up. You’ve even - and this is the big one – you’ve even got the ending planned out.

You’re happy because you know that having an ending in mind can make the writing process a breeze.

You sit down to write. You spend ten minutes writing. You spend an hour writing. You spend two hours writing. You begin to realise it’s not working. For some reason you just can’t get your story to move towards your ending.

What are you going to do? You could bump up your word count: add a pile of extra words to get your protagonist to their destination. Or you could introduce a new character, one that explains all the story holes to your reader.

But that’s not what you’re about. You want to tell the story as clearly and as cleanly as possible.

Before you give up hope, here is something you could consider trying. I’m loath to suggest it - I know how much you liked your ending – but here goes.

Move your ending to the beginning.

Your ending is now the opening for your story. Your protagonist is not falling from grace: she has fallen: you just have to describe how she fell. Your protagonist is not going on a journey: he has arrived at the final destination and is reliving the highlights.

But you know this: of course you do.

You are ready to write.

Friday, September 2, 2011


As a child my left hand turned my wonderful thoughts into illegible smudges. I would look down at the page and feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction with what I had created.

My heart would sink whenever my teacher praised a classmate for the quality of their penmanship. That will never be me, I thought.

I couldn’t get homework in on time; I spent too much time on my printing and not enough on the content. I wanted my work to be perfect, but my ability didn’t match my desire.

In the end I gave up. I would lie on my bed reading novels when I should have been doing my homework. My school grades suffered as a result.

The advent of word-processing software should have been a godsend for me. Here was a tool that, in one fell swoop, fixed my spelling and presented my words in perfect print. But it was too late. My bad habits were too deeply entrenched. Despite my love of computers my homework continued to pile up and my grades continued to go down.

It was many years later; I was sitting at my desk, my pen poised over a sheet of snow-white paper, and I thought, I’m going to teach myself to write without smudges. I moved the pen slowly across the page. It was hard at first, frustrating even. But as my handwriting improved I began to understand, nay, to feel, the joy of forming words on paper.

There was a connection between my words and my thoughts, I realised. It was a connection I hadn’t been told about as I learnt to write. I understood the art of handwriting, not just the practicality of it.

Perhaps things were just a bit rushed in school. Perhaps if I’d taken a bit more time I would have understood the art of hand-writing much earlier in my life.

So now, if a child tells me they have bad handwriting, I tell them about the art of writing. Invariably they will look at me blankly and tell me about the word-processor. But I know: if they love words, one day they will learn to love the pen too.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Writer's Block

I’m going to start today’s blog with a rather lengthy quote from American author, Ray Bradbury:

A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You’re there now doing the thing on paper. You’re not killing the goose; you’re just producing an egg. So I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It’s a matter of just sitting down and working. I have never had the problem of a writing block. I’ve heard about it. I’ve felt reluctant to write on some days, for whole weeks, or sometimes even longer. I’d much rather go fishing, for example, or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not. But, later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.” There’s no difference on paper between the two.

On first reading this quote may appear to contain a number of quite different ideas: but it does not. Bradbury is talking about inspiration. He’s saying that sitting down and writing is a fundamental part of the writing process. Writers cannot expect to be inspired if they are not actively trying to write.

Bradbury is saying that there is no golden goose. There is no magic that drops awesome story ideas into your mind. Writing begets writing.

I’ve heard other authors say what Bradbury says here: that they cannot detect in their own writing a difference between those bits where the ideas flowed like a flood, and those were the ideas did not flow at all.

In my experience, keeping notes of your ideas as they come to you - noting them down before they evaporate from your mind - will help you when you are sitting at your desk chewing your pencil, trying to decide what to write.

Let your words be the wick for more words.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Popularity Contest

Bestselling author, Bryce Courtney, knows how long his average reader will spend reading at each sitting. The chapters of his novels are calculated to be precisely one sitting in length. Courtney also uses his research skills, gleaned from a career in advertising, to create novels that people will want to read.

I was surprised when I heard this. Is this a cynical attempt to manipulate his readers? I thought about this for some time before deciding that it is not. Whatever ones views on Courtney’s writing may be, it is hard not to admire his efforts to make his work more appealing to his readers.

Some writers might think differently. They might look at some of the classic novels and decide that writing that is hard to understand is the way to create high art.

This school of thought overlooks the fact that many classic works were extremely popular at the time they were published. These novels were in tune with the spirit of the people who read them.

This is something that I keep in mind as I learn to write. Becoming a good writer is not just about words: it’s about understanding the world in which those words exist.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Secret of Success

Rosanne Barr gained fame for her role as creator and star of the hugely successful 80’s sitcom: Rosanne. She has strong views on many things, including what it takes to be a success. Here’s an excerpt from her website:

Believing in yourself does not make you talented. Talent is like obsession.

Honestly, if you are not spending hours each day writing or creating content of some kind, then you probably never will actualize your dreams.

Getting ones hands dirty has become unfashionable. Success, it is believed, is a state of mind most often found amongst the perfect: those unsullied by hard work.

Having demolished the common myths surrounding success, Barr then turns on what is currently considered success’s close cousin: fame.

…my advice is to accept reality - the odds are that you will never be famous…
Barr’s advice made me think about successful writers: those who have achieved fame, and those who have not. These writers have something of the fanatic about them: they are driven by their art; they are not afraid to lose themselves in their work; they are not afraid to furrow their foreheads in thought. And while it may seem that every writer wants to be read, I think some writers write so as to better understand themselves. This may not be the path to fame, but perhaps it is the path to true success.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Tao of Description

The Chinese philosophical classic, The Tao Te Ching, opens with this observation:

The Tao that can be described is not the true Tao.

The Tao Te Ching describes the nature of the infinite; it describes the vibe of the source of all things. Laozi, the author of this text, starts his work by telling the reader that the upcoming descriptions of the Tao are not the Tao itself. He’s implying that the reason we humans don’t get the Tao is that we let our need for descriptions, our labels, and our language, get in the way of reality.

Laozi realised that his desire to transmit knowledge of the Tao was fundamentally flawed: he had to use language to describe what could only be diminished by description. But that realisation didn’t stop him from trying. I suspect Laozi understood that words, while imperfect, can open a reader’s eyes to the world around her, and to the world inside her.

Words may not be the destination, but they can point you in the right direction, and they can give you an idea of what you will see when you get there.

The writer of prose knows that words are imperfect. He knows that his ability to communicate an idea or feeling is limited by his knowledge of words and how they work together. But, like Laozi, the writer believes in the power of the human mind, its ability to transmute words into magic, to find the infinite through the finite.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Motor that I Call My Heart

It was the last night of school camp. We had just finished a long bush walk. Night had fallen. It had been a hard day. I was tired. I was 11.

I stood in the darkness watching as the rest of my class chased each other around a large field. I could have joined in, but I wanted someone to call out to me, to tell me to come and play. No one did.

I was standing there, feeling lonely, when my teacher walked over to me. She said something - I can’t remember what - something reassuring, and then, out of the blue, she held my hand.

My teacher knew what it was like being 11 years old; knew what it felt like when the world started to lose its magic. My teacher knew that sometimes, when you can’t work out how to be strong by yourself, you need someone who has had a bit of practice at it to show you how it’s done.

Somehow, just by holding my hand, my teacher showed me how to be strong when things are hard. Just by holding my hand, my teacher taught me about heart.

There are many examples of fictional characters that find themselves on a journey, a journey that will require them to be stronger than think they can be. When a character fails to be strong, you, the reader, might find yourself, figuratively speaking, reaching out to hold that characters hand. This is how an author shows you something you may not have realised: you are ready to reach out and hold the hand of someone who needs it. You have heart.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Usage and Abusage

The book Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge is a practical guide to the English language. It is also a surprisingly enjoyable read.

Usage and Abusage was first published in 1942, but the clearness of the writing gives it a more contemporary feel. The ‘Popular Penguin’ edition was revised by Janet Whitcut in 1994.

Usage and Abusage is laid out like a dictionary: each entry describes the correct, or incorrect, use of a particular word or phrase. Unlike a dictionary, however, we hear the author’s voice speaking to us from within the entries:

arm for sleeve is sometimes condemned, but as this sense (a natural one, after all) is passed as blameless by OED, it certainly is good English.

It is clear that Eric Partridge loves the English language. He is passionate about its correct use, and this passion can make his opinions seem precious or even pretentious. However, having spent some time with this book, I have decided that Partridge’s intention was not to patronise his readers but to educate them.

Usage and Abusage will take you on a journey. You will open the book at random and find an entry that reads “insipid. see vapid,” and you will go to vapid to find out what’s going on.

The book includes some excellent lists. My favourite of these is ‘Group Terms’ which lists ‘nouns of assemblage or company’. Some of these are Partridge’s own inventions: a group of lawyers is a surplus.

His list of common tautological expressions also makes for enlightening reading.

The Popular Penguin edition of Usage and Abusage costs A$10. Bargain.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Comma

I am sitting in front of my computer: there is a finished story on the screen in front of me; my mouse pointer is hovering over the ‘Publish’ button, the button that will make the story available on my website. My right index finger is poised, ready to click that button. It is time to click that button; I have to click it: but I don’t; I don’t click that button. I sit there. I start to sweat. I start to question the contents of my story. I start to wonder if I have used too many commas.

I remind myself that I can still change my story after I have posted it. I remind myself that the very small number of people who visit my website will understand the comma problem.

But, as I click that ‘Publish’ button, a dull sense of unease remains: something is not right.

I go to my own website. I re-read my story. I remove the comma and republish the story. I go back to my website. I re-read my story again. I add the comma back in and republish the story again.

This comma is like the bolt that is leftover after you have put your car back together: it is a small piece, but it is significant.

The significance of the comma grows in my mind. I read the story to my wife, with and without the comma. She tells me she can’t hear a difference and that she likes my story. I tell her that she doesn't understand my art.

We go to bed. I dream that hundreds of people have read my story. I am on the brink of being discovered as an author until someone shouts out, ‘Hey, what’s with this extra comma?” The crowd turns away from me. I call after them, tell them that it can be removed: but it’s no use.

I wake-up with a start. I make a note of the dream in my writer’s diary. Perhaps there is a story in this, I think.

Friday, August 19, 2011


I have a confession to make: I once wanted to be famous.

Let us imagine a young man; he is listening to a pop song; there is a black vinyl disk turning; there is a pair of headphones with a long cord; there is the vibration of the music; there is a soul awakening.

This soul is not waking up to freedom. It is not waking up to some hitherto unknown philosophical ideal. This soul is waking up to the power of itself. It is waking up to a way of being, a way of feeling in life.

I was that young man. That soul was mine.

Have you ridden a bike? Have you had this experience: your legs are barely moving, yet that small movement is somehow enough to power the bike along at amazing speed?

That day, as I listened to that music, I felt a sense of effortless achievement.

The musician ‘Sting’ was singing, and I associated the feeling of the music, that feeling of effortless achievement, with Sting and with fame.

I wanted to be famous – I wanted to be like Sting.

Wanting to be like someone else is both a motivating force and a kind of sin. It’s a kind of sin because you are not - and you will never be - that other person.

There is an effortless power in this world, but it is possible that Sting has never felt it as I have. There is only one path that I can see: to be oneself and to be true to one's own feelings.

Today I heard Sting’s voice singing from a radio next door. And, at that moment, a tiny part of an interview with Sting came back to my mind:

“…the whole of my 120 songs, or however many songs I've written…”

120 short songs, not much more than two decks of cards worth. That wouldn't be too hard, would it?

In that moment, for a faction of a second, and for no good reason, I felt that desire for fame creep up on me. But it was a small beast.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Horrible Novels

American author, Ray Bradbury, knows a thing or two about writing fiction: he’s been doing it for over 70 years. During this time he has written a number of influential works including: ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’.

Bradbury is an encourager of authors. Here’s what he says about writing novels:

“…it takes a year to write a novel, and if it doesn’t work, you despair, you see? I don’t write novels – well, rarely. If you write 52 short stories in a year, I defy you to write 52 bad ones. So you keep your spirits up.”

Bradbury is admonishing his listeners to walk before they run, to learn the art of writing before they embark on creating a full length novel. He’s saying, in a very gentle way, that there’s a chance that your first novel may not be as good as you think it is.

Recently, a reader told me that they liked this line from a short-story of mine named ‘Joy':

“My heart is not a spring in a box. My heart is like a rower on a midnight lake.”

My reader probably wouldn’t have read my work if it were novel length. I would have missed out on their thoughts and on their encouragement. I would have missed out on a chance to learn.

Having said that, I’m actually thinking about writing a novel.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Second Person

The second-person form brings ‘you’ into the writing. You have probably read instruction manuals that are written using this form: “Before you begin, you will need: a sharp pencil; a square piece of paper; and three tadpoles.” The second-person form can also be used to much effect in fiction.

When you read something that has been written in the first-person form, it may feel as if the author is saying that their experience is unique: “I loved her”; while in the third-person form it may feel as if the author is somehow above the emotion which they are describing: “She loved him.” By writing in the second-person form, the author is taking a leap of faith, hoping that you will feel or see as they do: “You love.”

Here’s an example of second-person narrative taken from the fifth chapter of ‘Adam Bede’ by George Eliot:

“See them in the bright sunlight, interrupted every now and then by rolling masses of cloud, ascending the slope from the Broxton side, where the tall gables and elms of the rectory predominate over the tiny whitewashed church.”

Eliot employs the second-person form throughout this novel. She is encouraging the reader to be more than a passive bystander. She is inviting you to step into the book and become one of the characters. She is asking you to look more closely at the world she is creating for you; to look beyond her words and trust your own imagination.

When the second-person form is used in poetry or lyrics, the poet or lyricist is trying to draw you into a different world; a world beyond mere experience; a world of emotions; emotions that most human beings share.

In ‘Fields of Gold,’ Sting sings to us in the second-person: “You’ll remember me, when the west wind moves, upon the fields of barley…” Sting then uses the first and third-person forms to create lyrics with a unique and timeless feeling.

Feist’s song, ‘The Park’, is written in the second-person form.

Why would he come, back through the park
You thought that you saw him, but no, you did not
It's not him who comes, across the sea to surprise you
Not him who would know where in London to find you.

You wonder, as you listen to Feist sing these words, if you are overhearing her berate herself in private; berating herself for having hoped. Or is she singing this song just for you: the wounded reaching out to the wounded?

And, as you listen to these words, you decide that it is high time that the second-person form was taken back from instruction manual writers: it is time for a second-person renaissance.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Best of all Possible Worlds

Sometime ago I heard an interview in which the following exchange took place:

Interviewer: How many times have you been called Pangloss in your book tour?

Interviewee: Once or twice, but of course that's quite wrong because Pangloss said this is the best of all possible worlds…

There had been no prior questions that could have prepared the interviewee for this reference to Pangloss, and there was no discernible gap between question and answer.

I was impressed.

For those of you who haven’t read the satire ‘Candide’ by Voltaire, Pangloss is the mentor of the protagonist after whom the novella is named. Pangloss’s mantra is: “this is the best of all possible worlds,” and he clings to this optimistic ideology as a series of awful, yet plausible, events tear his world to pieces.

I had read Candide a couple of months before hearing the aforementioned interview. Even still, it wasn’t until the interviewee gave his answer that I understood the Pangloss reference.

This is not the first time that I have heard an author answer, what I considered to be, a difficult question, without missing a beat.

I find these awe inspiring feats of mental gymnastics intimidating. I suspect that, should I ever be interviewed, the outcome would be a long series of ‘ums’ with the odd, “Could you repeat the question?” thrown in for good measure.

It’s thought’s like these that can make an aspiring writer wonder if they’ve got what it takes.

Perhaps I should be more optimistic?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tilting at Windmills

The Penguin Classic editions of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘War and Peace’ have 864 and 1376 pages respectively. In terms of its length, Don Quixote, at 1056 pages, fits squarely between these two great tomes.

Don Quixote is long: Tolstoy long.

I give you this information as a warning. Downloading this classic novel may seem easy; but I urge you, nay, I implore you: think about the consequences.

Think about the commitment; think about the times you will see someone - perhaps the person next to you on the tram - reading a book that you really want to read, but you can’t: you’re reading Don Quixote, and you will be for a long, long time.

Perhaps you decided to read this book in order to better understand its influences on the modern world; you want to understand the true meaning of ‘Quixotic’ or ‘Tilting at Windmills’. If this is the case, you, like those who brought these ideas into popular culture, may be able to escape after the first 100 pages.

If not, if you’ve decided to read this book purely to sample, as Wikipedia puts it, “..the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age…”, then you’re in for a long ride.

To be fair, Don Quixote does have plenty of ‘laugh out loud’ moments. But so does Calvin and Hobbs, and the ideas and humour are not that dissimilar.

Anyway, this is not a book review. I may well write a review one day; just give me another six months to finish the book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Forming an elegant sentence is an art form. Some writers seem to pick perfect word combinations with ease, while others spend hours on a single phrase, desperately shuffling words, hoping to strike the winning combination.

I am in the latter group.

Sometimes words don’t flow - just don’t feel right. Replacing a clunky word with a synonym, something a bit more streamlined, might help. Splitting one long sentence in to two, or joining two shorter sentences together, may also fix the problem.

When all else fails, the writer may end up deleting the words that make up one of their favourite ideas; banishing those words back to the notebook from whence they came.

But somehow it all feels worthwhile. Finding a modicum of sense, or clarity, or (God willing) elegance, in one’s own words can be quite a thrill. It’s this thrill that keeps many writers shuffling words, long after any sane person would have given up.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Uncertainty Militant Atheist

Writing, like most habits, has its associated paraphernalia. Writers will wax lyrical about a particular brand of pen, a type of notebook, or a version of the Oxford English dictionary. Having the right paraphernalia becomes an integral part of the writing process; almost as important as, say, staring at a flashing cursor on an empty computer screen.

For me, the downside of writing in a conventional notebook isn't the lack of a cursor: it's the lack of automatic spell-checking. As I write in my diary I find myself checking the spelling of words like uncertainty, or militant, or atheist.

Luckily, in this modern era the ability to spell is far less important than it once was. And this is just as well, because I love writing even more than I love my blue Kilometrico.

Or is that Killometrico?