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.