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?