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If Dying is Easy, What’s More Difficult Than Comedy?

23 Feb

The most difficult thing about building a galactic empire of your very own doesn’t lie in populating it, or organising it, nor is it in writing the history, predicting the future or understanding how it works. The real difficulty is in finding names for things; people and places that don’t make you cringe when you try to use them.

Obviously writers of fantasy have much the same problem and JRR Tolkien had a major advantage in as much as he was familiar to some degree with a wide variety of languages classical, modern and medieval. (Something more than 20, I think).

Doubtless this facility with languages was a major asset in creating his own languages which, in turn, allowed him to produce all manner of names for places and people which not only sounded plausible, but also had a certain coherence to them. As a matter of fact, he was very often able to produce a number of different names for any one thing. So a particular place might have a name in the Common Tongue, and another in Elvish, a third in Dwarvish and maybe another in one or other of the tongues of men.

This is an enviable ability. (Not to mention deeply exasperating for those of us who struggle with such things).

For my part I’m only really fluent in English. I can vaguely recall a bit of High School French, but not much and I know a few (a very few) words in German, mostly technical and esoteric terms. I also know a little Ancient Greek and Latin (who doesn’t) and I can be quite rude in Russian. I even know one or two words of Japanese. (None of this is desperately impressive, if you think about it, most of us know a fair number of words and phrases taken from different languages depending on the vagaries of education, interests, employment and hobbies).

Needless to say, this is not altogether sufficient to produce a series of plausible names as and when required.

Sometimes, when you can’t rely on your wide-ranging knowledge of foreign languages ancient and modern, you can fall back on typos, misreadings and other gifts of accident and error. But many of these will not only be gibberish, they will also read and sound like gibberish and therefore be pretty much useless.

Of course the problem was much less acute for a writer like Charles Dickens.

For one thing most of the places he was writing about were quite real and even where they weren’t they were, at least, in Britain. (More specifically England). There was the odd exception, but where Dickens needed a name for a place in Africa he could quite happily concoct a nonsense word like ‘Borrioboola-Gha’ because the name didn’t have to be plausible. It just had to sound exotic and comedic in a, sort-of, African kind of way, to people who would mostly know very little about Africa or African languages.

In any case Borrioboola-Gha doesn’t play a huge role in Bleak House, it’s a piece of throwaway humour used by Dickens to take a satirical swipe at what he called ‘telescopic philanthropy’. (If you want to know what he meant by that, read the book. You might find the length intimidating but it’s a pretty easy read. Once you get started you’ll fly through it, but watch out for the pathos, it’s Dickens’ biggest weakness).

But even where Dickens wanted a name for a character who was going to play a significant role in his story, he still had a great degree of latitude.

That’s because, while he often dealt with serious themes, he did so through humour which meant that, to a degree, realism was often an optional extra. That’s not to say that Dickens ever wrote pure fantasy, his work was always rooted in real life even if he chose to show it in a heightened, distorted, sometimes fabulous and often grotesque way. So he could have characters like Gradgrind, Lady Deadlock, Fezziwig and, of course, Bob Cratchit.

Typically, for Dickens a character’s name was an extension and reflection of their personality or situation. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge. The surname may well be derived from an obscure English verb ‘scrouge’, meaning ‘squeeze’ or ‘press’, but the reader doesn’t need to know that to get the point. With a name like Scrooge, you pretty well have to be a tight fisted, grasping sort of character. (At least until the end of the book).

Similarly, the relentlessly cheerful co narrator of Bleak House is called Esther Summerson. Once you know the name, you know something about the character as well.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will doubtless be aware that JK Rowling did much the same thing in naming many of her characters as did Mervyn Peake. (If you haven’t read the Gormenghast books, then maybe that’s something else to stick on your ‘to do’ list).

This is not really an option if you’re trying to write something with a bit less humour. (I was tempted to say ‘something a bit more serious’ but sometimes Dickens was quite serious, and doubtless fans of Harry Potter would make much the same claim about JK Rowling. I’m reluctant to offer a definitive opinion, however, because while I’ve seen the films, as and when they’ve been on TV, I haven’t read the books).

Of course writers of ‘serious’ science fiction ( and some may doubt there even is such a thing) do sometimes apply names that have some degree of significance to characters, places and races. The most obvious example being Gene Roddenberry using names like ‘Romulan’ or ‘Vulcan’.

These names are obviously drawn from existing human cultures. I’m not quite sure why Roddenberry chose the name ‘Vulcan’ for a race who tend to be Saturnine in appearance, although I suspect it was probably just because he thought it sounded right. (I’m sure someone will know, but I just watched the series, I’ve no claim to the esteemed title of ‘Trekker’). Having said that the significance of the name ‘Romulan’ for a race with a largely militaristic and authoritarian culture seems pretty obvious.

The term ‘Klingon’, while it’s given rise to a certain amount of scatalogical wordplay, particularly in the West of Scotland, is a little more obscure. But it kind of sounds right anyway and that’s all that really matters in the end. (Having said this, maybe the reason ‘Klingon’ seems to work so well has something to do with the fact that we’ve been hearing it for decades now. Familiarity, at least for made up names, tends to breed credibility, not contempt).

Of course this kind of thing can go horribly wrong.

Consider The Chronicles of Riddick, for example.

Here you have Riddick’s people the ‘Furyons’. Is that a reference to ‘the Furies’ from Greek mythology, perhaps? After all, Riddick does turn out to be the avenger of his race. Or maybe it’s supposed to suggest anger or violence. (Having said this Riddick seldom seems to be angry as such, although he’s frequently violent).

And then there’s the prison planet where it gets very, very hot in the daytime, ‘Crematoria’. Bit obvious, don’t you think?

Maybe a little more work was required here.

Although the truly abysmal example of this kind of thing comes from James Cameron’s Avatar.

I mean, ‘Unobtanium’?

Really?

It’s not even as though the term is used ironically.

What on earth was he thinking about?

Obviously there are plenty of people who really enjoyed Avatar (although, personally I found the plot predictable and the characters pretty unpleasant so I gave up part way through), but I think my point still stands. Giving a made up substance a name like ‘unobtanium’ is just liable to jar anyone out of their suspended disbelief.

So that brings me back to borrowings from what little I know of foreign languages, typos, misreadings and other happy(ish) accidents. Because I do need quite a few place names and nothing screws up your narrative flow quite like having to stop to make one up.

The only solution I’ve found is to take some time in advance of writing the story in order to make up a stock of names I can apply as and when I need them. Needless to say, some of them make me cringe when I try to use them, but when that happens, I can only hope that I have enough spare made up names in stock to fill the gap.

Maybe I should just write a comedy or something. Edmund Keane (or was it Donald Wolfit) said ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’. (Which may well be true, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t died yet.) But if comedy is hard, making up sensible sounding names derived from languages that don’t exist, for places and people who don’t exist, is much harder.

Like and Share

15 Feb

Recently I posted a comment on Facebook about a government minister that caused some offence to someone.

I don’t particularly wish to rehash the ensuing exchange, but it did prompt me to think a little about why I even bother to comment about these things.

After all, it’s not as though any comment of mine is actually going to change anything, is it?

For one thing I have no idea how many people actually read anything I post on Facebook and for another, I have no idea to what extent any comment I post actually affects anyone’s thinking or behaviour. Probably not much, as a matter of fact.

So maybe all this commenting on Facebook is completely futile, or worse, a form of narcissism.

Which brings me on to a different, but related topic; i.e. online petitions.

Like almost anyone who has ever been online I have signed and shared the odd online petition and it’s possible that some of these petitions have had some kind of effect. Organisations like Change.org, Avaaz.org and 38 Degrees will obviously claim significant achievements for the petitions launched and supported by their members and I’m sure they’ll have convincing evidence to support those claims.

On the other hand, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I receive notifications about new petitions on a daily basis and I’m aware that there are far more online petitions out there than I will ever hear about and this is the bit that troubles me.

In a way it’s a good thing if anyone can start a petition if there’s something that they feel strongly about. But in another way I think there’s a problem here. With so many online petitions flying about there’s a risk that support for a cause that has general support will be divided amongst half a dozen petitions, thereby making it that much easier for the powers that be to ignore each petition in turn. Something that might be more difficult to do if there was just one petition signed by everyone who cared about that particular issue.

The other risk that follows from having so many online petitions is that any one petition, no matter how worthy, is liable to be swamped by the sheer volume of other petitions, however worthy in themselves. There is also the risk that politicians, amongst others, will find it all too easy to dismiss online petitions and the people who sign them. Already we’ve had Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler using the term ‘rent a mob’ and Simon Burns MP (a sometime Health Minister) describing members of the petition website 38 Degrees as ‘almost zombie-like’. (This is a very politician like smear since it gets across the basic ‘zombie’ insult, while the qualifier ‘almost’ allows plenty of wiggle room in the face of any challenge).

So there is a question about whether or not the sheer accessibility of online petitioning and campaigning effectively undermines the message being sent as a result of so many messages being sent.

You could avoid this problem, or at least reduce it, by having some kind of filtering process in order to avoid duplication of effort or even to weed out the cranks. (To some extent 38 Degrees, for example, does this because it will only go ahead with a campaign on a particular subject if there is a strong consensus amongst its members behind it). But the risk involved in ‘weeding’ anything out is that some perfectly justifiable point of view is suppressed simply because it’s unfashionable, or because it goes against the hang ups and prejudices of whoever’s doing the weeding.

Which brings me back to my original question. Is there really a point in making a comment, signing a petition or sending a letter or email to your MP when you can be pretty sure that it’s going to have no real effect in practice?

As an aside, it’s worth noting that on February 2nd 2003 an estimated million people turned out to protest against the American led invasion of Iraq. (This in spite of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, instructing the Royal Parks Agency to deny permission for the use of Hyde Park for the rally. This decision was apparently taken on safety grounds and in order to protect the grass. The decision was later reversed and the rally took place with, so far as I can gather, no great risk to anyone’s safety, although there may have been some

damage to the grass).

This protest, probably the largest in UK history, achieved absolutely nothing in terms of changing government policy. We had a pretty bland comment from Toy Blair (The Prime Minister at the time) about respecting other people’s views, but then the invasion went ahead anyway. (It’s very possible that Mr Blair means something different from the rest of us when he talks about ‘respect’. I think in his lexicon to ‘respect’ means to ‘ignore’).

So was there a point to that rally?

Probably.

If nothing else it was an attempt to speak truth to power. (Something that’s probably always worth doing). And if nothing else it means that no amount of lying, spin, or history revising will ever allow supporters of the war to claim that the Blair government had the wholehearted support of the British people on this issue.

Which brings me back to my habit of commenting on various issues on Facebook. (A somewhat more modest proposition than rallying a million people against a war, I admit).

Why should I bother?

I suppose most of the reason is because it relieves, to some extent, my frustration and irritation at the behaviour of people in power. To that extent, I suppose, it’s therapeutic and therefore has some value, if only to me.

As for anyone else?

Well, of those who actually see anything I post on Facebook, I suppose some will simply scroll on until they find something more interesting. Others will at least read what I’ve posted. Of those some will agree, others will disagree and from time to time someone will take offence.

In any event the world will go on with its turning and the price of cheese (amongst other things) will remain entirely unaffected).

Except that maybe someone will be made aware of something that they might otherwise have missed and maybe someone will think about something they might not otherwise have thought about and maybe change their mind. (NB I make no claim that I will be able to change anyone’s mind, I’m deeply sceptical about my ability to do that, but I do think that people can change their own minds if presented with new facts or maybe a point of view they hadn’t encountered before).

Which brings me to a brief digression on the subject of angels.

Our word ‘angel’ is derived from a Greek word for messenger (ἄγγελος or ángelos). Angels turn up, of course in various religions and mythologies, particularly Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions, and more recently in some New Age belief systems.

One, rather fetching, take on angels that I heard once, was provided by a Rabbi who said that anyone could be an angel. His view was that an angel was simply someone who said something, perhaps quite inadvertently, that changes the way you see things.

But then again, my chances of acting as an angel are probably no better than anyone else’s, and probably greatly reduced on Facebook since most people on social media are less likely to be seeking enlightenment than funny pictures of cats. (Or glamorous pictures of horses).

So again, why bother?

Well, I suppose I have a vague notion that when we come across something we think is wrong we shouldn’t just let it pass. Ideally we should do something about it, or if we can’t do anything, then we should say something. Even if no one’s paying any attention.

This is because I think if we just let things carry on as they are, even when we know that what’s happening is wrong, then we become complicit.

It could well be that if you speak out, you’re only talking to yourself, but that’s not such a bad thing even if it only serves to remind you of what’s right or wrong and how to tell the difference.

And it seems to me that the alternative is to simply acquiesce. And the risk of doing that is to allow things to become acceptable when they should be completely unacceptable.

There is also the fact that big problems don’t have to be solves all at once and sometimes the non-negotiable demand for a complete, all in one, solution ends up being an obstacle to taking any action at all.

(For example, in a city plagued by slum housing, the local authority may wish to institute a large-scale campaign of urban renewal, demolishing the slums and building new homes for all the people displaced from the slums. Obviously this campaign will cost a huge amount of money and require a great deal of careful planning and organisation. Obviously this will be a huge benefit to the community if it all goes well, and the temptation would be to stop carrying out basic repair work while the big plan is pending because the big plan will make all that repair work redundant. Or, what’s worse, to ignore the basic repair work because fixing one person’s leaky roof doesn’t address the big problem and the big plan will do just that. But what happens if there is no big plan? Do you fix the leaky roof, or do you just complain that fixing a leaky roof won’t provide a complete solution to the big problem?).

So I think we should speak up in the face of things we think are wrong. I also think we should speak plainly and speak the truth. (If we can and in this context, FactCheck.org, Snopes and Mythbusters all provide a useful, if much underused service).

It might not do any good or it may only do the least conceivable quantum of good. But if it does any good at all then that’s better than nothing and little things can accumulate until they become quite big things. A tiny effort by enough people can become an unstoppable force.

Which is not to say that the full extent of our moral obligations is to post a snarky comment on Facebook. If we can do more then we should. But registering some kind of protest is a perfectly acceptable first step and if that’s all we can do then that’s what we should do.

One Big Question

2 Nov

Sometimes you can anticipate the big questions that future historians will ponder over. Questions like why did the Scottish electorate vote against independence in the 2014 referendum? Why did VHS win out over Betamax? (You’re showing your age if you even understand that one). Or why did so many people buy into the whole Twilight ‘twinkly vampire’ thing?

 

There are other questions that will doubtless occur to academics in the future that we can’t possibly anticipate. To take an example, just think of the way that contemporary historians would dearly love to understand the experience of ordinary people from past ages. This is something that the people who were actually recording events at the time totally failed to anticipate, hence the frustration of contemporary historians and their absolute delight at coming across treasures such as the Vindolanda tablets. (Hundreds of wooden leaf-tablets dating from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD, written with carbon based ink. They were found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda – hence the name. Some record official military matters, others are private messages, including invitations to a birthday party and letters written by Roman squaddies to their mums).

 

Having said that, one question that I can be reasonably sure will never trouble any academic of any discipline in any future period is the vexed conundrum of why the hell I bother to self publish on Amazon Kindle Direct.

 

The reason I can be so sure about this is because one of two things will happen.

 

Either a) I will become a hugely successful author in which case it will be obvious to everyone that my efforts to self-publish were all part of a cunning plan that worked out beautifully in the end or b) no one will ever bother to read any of my work, which means that no one will ever hear of me and future academics will be spared the trouble of wondering why I ever did anything at all. (I must admit that the second possibility seems rather more plausible at present).

 

Of course there is the possibility that future historians will ponder the question of why people in general ever published anything on KDP and its equivalents, but that’s a different and rather more general question.

 

In the spirit of generosity towards future academics, however, and just on the off-chance that I’m wrong and someone does take an interest in this question, I’m willing to offer an explanation.

 

The reason why I publish on Amazon KDP is because I’ve never managed to persuade anyone remotely connected with the publishing business to take any interest in publishing anything for me.

 

There are probably sound reasons for this.

 

Undoubtedly, one of these reasons is that some of the stuff I’ve sent off to magazines, publishers and agents was, quite frankly, crap. Or at least it was immature and not particularly well thought out or well written. (More to the point, they weren’t particularly well rewritten. The essence of good writing is rewriting – as many of us come to learn).

 

I had confidence in what I had written at the time, obviously. I wouldn’t have sent it off otherwise. But having reread the material some time later, I could certainly see flaws that weren’t apparent to me when I sent it off.

 

I suppose that’s inevitable. We all develop over time and the only way to learn to write is to keep writing and keep reading. (In particular that means rereading your own stuff in spite of the fact that it makes you cringe. Or rather, precisely because it makes you cringe. That’s how you learn to avoid writing stuff that makes you cringe).

 

So clearly some of my submissions have been somewhat (shall we say) optimistic, and with hindsight I can’t really blame anyone for rejecting them.

 

More recently I think my work has improved and I can go back to it months, and even years later and still not cringe. But I still can’t persuade anyone to take it on.

 

Maybe that just means that I’m still writing crap and I’ve just become more cunning in deceiving myself. On the other hand, I have had a few positive comments from people who really didn’t need to make any comment at all if they didn’t want to. (As opposed to friends and family who often find it really hard to tell you that you really ought to take up knitting or stamp collecting instead of writing because you’re really not very good at it. I know about this. I was once asked to give ‘an honest opinion’ about some truly appalling poetry and I too found it very hard to be really honest about it).

 

 

Of course on one level it really doesn’t make much difference whether or not I’m any good at writing. I don’t write because I think I’m good at it, I write because it’s just something I’m compulsive about doing.

 

(Someone once said that an artist isn’t someone who’s good at art, he/she is simply someone who would go completely crazy if they tried to stop making art. I have no delusions about being an ‘artist’, but I think the same basic principal applies).

 

So I’ll carry on writing whether or not I’m writing crap and, like most people who write, I’d be rather pleased if someone actually chose to read something I’ve written. (As opposed to being semi-obliged because I’ve asked them to). As a result I publish stuff on Amazon KDP because I really don’t have a better alternative right now.

 

Of course the big problem with this form of self-publishing is exactly the same as the big advantage with it. That is, anyone can do it. And of course, because anyone can, lots of people do.

 

Of course this is the point where some people will be inclined to comment on the quality of the material being published in this way and those comment will inevitably be pretty negative.

 

I don’t propose to make that kind of comment (mostly because I’m probably in a bit of a glass house here and I shouldn’t start chucking stones about, but also because I’m acutely aware of the fact that my personal opinions aren’t necessarily a reliable guide to literary merit. I could give you quite a long and impressive list of great works of literature that I’ve found unreadable).

 

Having said that, one point I would make is that the sheer volume of what’s available does make it very difficult to stand out from the ground and make any kind of connection with anyone who might be interested in my writing. (And there is also the fact that my shortcomings as a writer, however great they may be, are as nothing compared to my shortcomings as a self-publicist).

 

There’s kind of an irony here, by the way. People like me really need an agent to promote our work, because we’re just not very good at promoting it ourselves. But the key to getting an agent is actually self-promotion – you have to ‘sell’ yourself and your work to the agent before they’ll even consider trying to sell it for you.

 

Of course, however exasperated aspiring authors may be with agents and publishers, the plain fact is that agents and publishers seem to be every bit as exasperated with aspiring authors. And they will, of course, deny that they’re the villains of the piece.

 

They’ll tell you, instead, that they’re not in it for the money, but because they really love promoting the work they believe in. Then they’ll typically complain about their ‘slush pile’ and probably chuck in a few disparaging remarks about how, contrary to popular belief, there really isn’t some huge pool of unpublished talent out there and the reason why most unpublished authors are unpublished is because they’re unpublishable. You may even get some comment about the prevalence of ‘hypergraphia’ amongst contributors to the slush pile.

 

(Hypergraphia – a behavioural condition characterised by a compulsive need to write, which may be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy. In this context there’s always the implication that the material being written is incoherent, or at least totally devoid of any literary merit).

 

There may be some truth in this, I wouldn’t know, I have no way of assessing the quality (or lack thereof) in the unsolicited submissions received by agents and publishers. What I would say, however, is that I really wish some of the people who make these complaints would try working a shift in a call centre or maybe try stacking shelves for a few hours.

 

Aside from anything else I really believe that, as a result of this experience, they would start to view their slush piles with some genuine affection. (And maybe even show a little bit of respect for the effort other people put into their work – although this may be just a little too much to ask).

 

I suppose this brings me to a fantasy that, I think, is very common amongst aspiring writers.

 

It goes like this.

 

An aspiring author (insert yourself here if you’ve ever written anything and hoped to get it published) writes something wonderful. He/she sends it off to multiple agents and publishers and is refused at every turn.

 

Finally through sheer persistence (or possibly some lucky chance – depending on your temperament, I suppose) this wonderful piece of writing gets published and becomes a massive worldwide success. At this point all the mean, nasty agents and publishers who rejected it are all summarily dismissed from their posts. (Or at the very least severely embarrassed at their lack of insight).

 

I can see the attractions of this fantasy, but it is, of course, nonsense.

 

Anyone who pays attention to such things can cite numerous cases of incredibly successful work that was rejected time and time again. And one thing I think I can be pretty sure of is that none of the people who rejected those works was ever disciplined, or fired, or even criticised for rejecting them.

 

In publishing, as in so many ‘creative’ fields, the tendency is always to be risk averse and the risk is always in accepting things, never in rejecting them. You may well hear, or read, about agents etc yearning for something original that will break the mould and break new ground and so on and so forth, but if you actually give them anything like that they will immediately start to panic about how it will break the bank if they try to work with it.

 

The art of making money in any ‘creative’ industry is to avoid being too creative. Essentially you need to follow the herd but try to follow from just a little (a very little) bit in front.

 

As a consequence, you’re much more likely to suffer as a result of accepting something that fails than for rejecting something that turns out to be a huge success in someone else’s hands.

 

So, it seems, the only way to be sure of getting something published is to a) be personally acquainted with someone in the publishing business, b) to have already had something published or c) to already be famous for something else. In other words to be a known quantity and to, therefore, seem like a safe bet. (Not that there is such a thing as a truly safe bet – Pippa Middleton’s book on entertaining quite famously failed to sell in any great numbers).

 

Since I fall into none of the above categories, and I don’t expect I ever will, I have no high hopes of finding an agent, far less a publisher in any big hurry.

 

As a result I self publish on Amazon KDP, along with so many other people of varying degrees of skill and talent. And I have about the same degree of success as everyone else. And it’s just as well I have a day job.

 

(Actually I’m working on a night shift at the moment, but the same basic principal applies).

 

Singular First Person

26 Oct

Many years ago, as a student of English Literature I was told to go and write an essay about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

I tend to feel quite smug about that essay, because I got a pretty good mark for it and (just for a change) my tutor seemed to think I was being quite perceptive. (Her normal feeling seemed to be that I was quite good at identifying interesting issues and then veering away from them without managing to say anything very interesting about them).

One of the insights I had to offer was in my essay was the suggestion that Conrad’s decision to write Heart of Darkness as a first person narrative was crucial to the success of the novel as a whole.

(It should be noted that there really isn’t any such thing as a typical Joseph Conrad novel. He often wrote stories about the sea, but having said that he ranged freely across different styles, techniques and themes and if you’ve read one of his books and you didn’t like it, then it’s probably worth having a look at some of his other stuff, because you never know your luck).

In particular, I suggested that Conrad’s use of a first person narrative not only allowed him to be suitably vague about the exact setting of the story, but also allowed him to leave out a lot of the boring scene setting stuff and concentrate on what he really wanted to write about.

These points might not seem very important, but I think they are.

Heart of Darkness is a very short, economical story and one of the key elements of the novel is a sense of disorientation. A key scene in the novel occurs when the river boat is travelling through a heavy fog and Marlowe describes his feeling of losing any sense not only of place, but also of time. Earlier in the story, Marlowe also talks of being feverish at times and there’s something of the hallucination about the whole story.

Had Conrad settled for the third person narrative, which he used to great effect elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that he could have achieved either the brevity or the dreamlike quality so essential to this novel.

So first person narrative is a useful device for creating atmosphere and also for limiting the amount of information available to the reader. By definition that reader can only be told what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to tell. (By contrast a third person narrator is effectively omniscient and attempts by authors to create uncertainty about ‘perhaps this’ or ‘maybe that’ always seems pretty artificial to me).

This makes first person narrative particularly effective for thrillers that depend on a careful balance between what is concealed and what is revealed to the reader in order to build towards a (hopefully) unexpected denouement. So it’s no big surprise that Raymond Chandler used first person narrative in all his novels and most of his short stories or that Dashiell Hammett used it in his ‘Continental Op’ stories (although, surprisingly not in some of his best novels eg The Maltese Falcon).

Even Agatha Christie (who generally used 3rd person narrative) used it from time to time and most memorably in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to produce a really nice little plot twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming. (No spoilers here – if you want to know what happens, read the book).

Another useful effect of a first person narrative is to make a character who might seem bland to most observers much more interesting by revealing his, or her, inner life in a particularly vivid manner.

Adam Hall does this especially well in his ‘Quiller’ novels, which are based on a highly professional ‘spy’ (he refers to himself as an ‘executive’) who cultivates anonymity as a key tool of his trade. (He works for ‘The Bureau’ – which has no official existence and unlike James Bond he’s not specially handsome, doesn’t cultivate a particularly glamorous lifestyle, doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble or get on first name terms with bartenders and head waiters).

What makes Quiller distinctive is his perverse, quirky, often bloody minded and possibly borderline psychotic personality. What is also innovative about the Quiller novels in contrast with the James Bond books is that Quiller has little trust and no affection for his employers. They give him what he needs, the kid of work he lives for, but he tends to refer to The Bureau as ‘The Sacred Bull’ (from which so much sacred bullshit flows). The clear implication of this term being that The Bureau is some kind of dark and oppressive deity that demands its regular tribute of

blood sacrifice.

Much like the classic PI in a hard boiled detective story, Quiller goes into his missions with just enough information to function – and often having been misled or manipulated into taking a job that he would never have taken on if he’d known what was involved. He often describes himself as a ferret who’s been sent down a rabbit hole, but usually with the implication that he might well run into something a lot more dangerous than a rabbit. All in all this setting creates an edgy, contrast between the concrete reality of what Quiller does and how he does it and the uncertainty of the background to what he’s doing. (This always includes the possibility that Quiller will be betrayed by his own people).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of effect using a 3rd person narrative, but where Adam Hall is particularly innovative in his use of first person narrative is in his action sequences. He has written some of the best fight scenes in popular fiction in my opinion, so much so the Eric von Lustbader was clearly inspired ( if that’s the word) to use a very similar style in thrillers like The Ninja).

What Adam Hall does in his action scenes is to use a fragmented, kaleidoscopic style that allows a very concise, immediate style and also reflects the vivid confusion that most people experience in a violent situation. (Most of us haven’t been involved in terminal confrontation with a professional killer, but if you think of any time you might have played a contact sport, or been involved in a car crash, you’ll probably get the idea).

It has to be said that Charlotte Brontë (whatever her other virtues as an author) is not generally noted for her vivid and innovative action sequences, but in Villette she did use first person narrative to achieve some of the same effects I’ve been describing in Adam Hall’s work.

Villette is a novel told from the point of view of Lucy Snowe. (Who, on the face of it has very little in common with Quiller, but she is also an individual who is somewhat at odds with her environment and the people around her. In addition, she tends to have a very low profile, although in her case this is not always a matter of choice, and she has little trust or affection for her employer. She is also stubborn, perverse and has a distinctly rebellious streak at times).

So what we have in Lucy Snowe is a not desperately pretty heroine who is really quite peripheral to the lives of those around her. She may depend on them to some extent, but for the most part they could get along quite nicely without her.

What, perhaps, makes her most like Quiller is the disconnect between her public persona and her private personality. The people who think they know her would be shocked rigid if they only knew what she was thinking and feeling. (Some, in fact, might be surprised to discover that she thinks and feels at all).

Where Lucy Snowe shows her character most clearly is where she hides and distorts information. For example, there is an idyllic, extended description of her passage across the English Channel that comes to an abrupt halt with the instruction to ‘cancel’ all that. Snowe then goes on to describe the truly miserable crossing that she actually experienced. She is also not above concealing significant information for a chapter or two for no obvious reason than her own perversity.

Of all the women in Victorian fiction, I think Lucy Snowe is my favourite.

Of course the last, and possibly best, reason for using first person narrative is simply that sometimes your characters speak in more interesting voices than you can.

This was certainly James M Cain’s reason. (For those who don’t recognise the name, James M. Cain vies with Ross MacDonald – author of The Moving Target, which was filmed with Paul Newman as Harper – for the title of The Other Great Writer of Hardboiled Crime Stories – alongside Raymond Chandler and Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Or to be a little more factual, he was the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Allow me to quote from the Author’s Preface to Double Indemnity.

…for ten years (I) resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel… I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put in the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they wanted to say.

So there you are; James M. Cain found that his characters were better storytellers than he was and he stepped aside to let them do the talking.

Of course there are problems with using a first person narrative. You can’t really jump from one character’s perspective to the another without using some kind of device. (eg Wilkie Collin’s use of written testimony from a series of characters in The Moonstonea device that I think he pulled off quite well but which I felt Bram Stoker struggled with in Dracula).

There is also the fact that if you’re writing from a first person perspective you have a certain theoretical lack of tension in as much as the reader ‘knows’ that the narrator can’t really get killed until he/she has fished telling the story. (Although you can get round that if you really try – see Sunset Boulevard). Of course this lack of tension is strictly theoretical. What a reader knows intellectually has little to do with how they respond to fiction, otherwise they wouldn’t respond to fiction at all.

Another problem is that in writing a first person narrative, you can feel quite exposed. Essentially you can maintain far more detachment from your central character as a 3rd person narrator.

On the other hand, to paraphrase someone I used to know; the more personal your writing is the more universal it becomes. And of course, you can’t make your writing personal unless you’re willing to take a few risks.

Why Mandlebrot?

12 Oct

Why Mandlebrot?

Good question.

Although, as a matter of fact, it actually breaks down into two questions.

The first question is quite specific, ‘why choose the name Mandlebrot?’ and the second is the more general question ‘why use a pseudonym at all?’

So let’s take each question in turn.

1/ Why choose the name Manldebrot?

Well, Benoît Mandlebrot (1924 – 2010) was a Polish born mathematician with dual French/American nationality who is best known for his discovery of the ‘Mandlebrot set’. (Described by Arthur C Clarke, no less, as ‘one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics).

Briefly, the ‘Mandlebrot set’ is the mathematical basis for generating fractals. Fractals, for anyone who doesn’t know, are a form of geometric repetition (to quote Stephen Wolfram) “in which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole. Fern leaves and Romanesco broccoli are two examples from nature”.

Fractals are remarkably useful and have applications in various areas of technology including soil mechanics, signal and image compression, heat exchangers and the creation of really cool and trippy posters.

Mandlebrot in addition to being a highly gifted mathematician, was also something of a maverick and a visionary who wrote about mathematics in a passionate and informal style which made his work surprisingly accessible to non-mathematicians. He also published papers in applied fields such as information theory, economics and fluid dynamics.

I wish I could say that I chose the name as a tribute to the man and his formidable achievement. Unfortunately, the plain fact is that I must have read, or heard his name, probably while I was studying the history of mathematics a few years ago, and somehow the name stuck in my memory without necessarily connecting with anything else, although I suppose I must have known something about who Mandelbrot was, because I don’t quite see how I could have come across the name without knowing something about the man and his work.

However, the main point is that I wanted a name for the narrator of a story and the name ‘Mandlebrot’ kind of stuck.

I can only hope that Benoît Mandlebrot had a sense of humour.

2/ Why use a pseudonym at all?

I suppose lots of people use pseudonyms for lots of reasons. George Eliot used a masculine name because she believed, with good reason, that if she’d been known to be a woman, no one would have taken her seriously as an author.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson an Anglican deacon and academic wrote his best-known works as Lewis Carroll. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Queen Victoria was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland and eagerly asked Deacon Dodgson to send her a copy of his next book. History does not record exactly what she made of the inscrutable tome on mathematics that she duly received in response to her request.

But neither of these cases apply to me. I have no particular reason to hide my identity. I’m not a member of any kind of minority group that might result in my work being prejudged and I have no standing in the community that might be I undermined if it were known that I write stories.

So why bother with a pseudonym?

Well, I suppose the reason is best explained by illustration.

Donald Westlake was a prolific author who wrote in a variety of styles and genres. Many of his books were crime stories and while there are many kinds of stories you can write about crime one of the major distinctions is between ‘capers’ and ‘heists’.

If a ‘caper’ is essentially a light-hearted and generally non-violent crime story, then a ‘heist’ typically more violent and less humourous.

The structure of a caper would typically consist of two parts, the first being the exposition of an elaborate plan for a crime, typically theft, and the second part is a description of how the plan is implemented and how it goes hopelessly wrong.

In a heist the actual crime tends to proceed like clockwork and the complications typically occur in the getaway or in dividing the spoils or because of interference by other criminals. As a general rule, the law enforcement community are, at most a minor inconvenience, and more often completely irrelevant.

So Donald Westlake wrote capers about John Dortmunder, a genius and criminal mastermind who always seemed to work with highly eccentric confederates and had no luck at all and he wrote heists about Parker. Parker has no pretension to be a genius or a criminal mastermind. He is simply a ruthless, violent, career criminal. On the other hand, his plans work.

The key point for my present purpose is that when Westlake wrote about Dortmunder, he wrote under his own name and when he wrote about Parker, he wrote as Richard Stark, and I think the reason for this is pretty obvious.

Fans of the Dortmunder capers might, or might not enjoy the Parker books as well, and vice versa, but it obviously makes a lot of sense to make it quite clear that these are two very different series of books. If he failed to do that, he would have risked disappointing his readers by allowing them to come to his work with expectations that would not be met. And the simplest way to make a clear separation between the Parker and Dortmunder books is to use a different name on the cover.

Having said all this, it should be pretty clear that the reason I chose to write Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did under a pseudonym is because I want to separate it from other things I might want to write. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1/ It’s a, sort of, children’s story. It’s about missing dragons, talking cats, flying on items of furniture etc. and I’m not sure I’m going to continue to write children’s stories. My previous, and almost universally ignored, work has involved zombies, vampires and a fair degree of violence. Not exactly suitable for small children.

2/ I’ve used a very distinctive narrative voice for this collection of stories and it’s not a narrative voice that would be suitable for other kinds of stories. It’s specifically tailored for these stories.

3/ These stories take place in a very particular world and they conform to a specific set of rules.

The rules are as follows:

a) No violence. (I’m following the excellent example of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin here).

b) Magic isn’t the solution, (magic can be included but only as part of the background, problems

are solved by thinking and doing and sometimes by talking, not by casting spells).

c) No one is a hero(ine) by virtue of their birth. Mattie, the central character is a little girl

growing up in a single parent family and her mother has to work hard for a living.

d) Things are true (or not) according to reason and evidence, not by virtue of authority.

e) No one is just born evil. People can be stupid, selfish, arrogant and so forth, but I’m not

having any characters who do what they do simply by virtue of being ‘a wicked witch’ for

example. People have reasons for doing what they do and while those reasons may, or may not,

be very sensible, but they have to have some kind of plausibility.

I think these rules are pretty good, and I may well stick with (most of) them if I write any more children’s stories. But I won’t necessarily stick with the same narrative voice and I probably won’t stick with the same world that the Fekesh and Mattie stories take place in and this, ultimately, is the reason for using a pseudonym.

 (Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did is available to download from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing).