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.