Tag Archives: writing

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.

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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).

Whenever There’s a Doubt (There’s No Doubt).

16 Mar

Every now and then I write something that I think is pretty good.

Sometimes, when I come back to something I wrote some time ago, I still think it’s pretty good.

I also have an interesting and varied collection of rejection letters from a selection of agents, publishers and magazines.

Having become a little discouraged with publishers and agents I indulged in a spot of self publication on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing a while ago.

The advantage of this kind of self publishing is that it costs nothing and you don’t have to slip past someone else’s hang ups to do it.

The disadvantage is that there’s an enormous amount of material out there and it’s no easy thing to get your work noticed by the people who might actually want to read it.

So in spite of a couple of encouraging comments from various people, I would have to admit that so far my career as an author could be described as a bit of a damp squib.

This is largely my own fault. I dislike self promotion and I’m not very imaginative or persistent about it. I also have a bad habit of writing things that are too long, too short or otherwise just not very commercially attractive.

But here I go again.

I’ve written two novels out of a trilogy (the third installment is in draft form but still in need of extensive revision). Having reread (and further revised) the first two I still think they’re pretty good.

So having come to the conclusion that someone else might also think they’re pretty good, I’m going to have another shot at getting them published.

Where to begin?

Well, the traditional place to start is The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, so that’s where I’ve started. (Call me a traditionalist if you like).

I went through the UK agents section with a highlighter and market out the likely prospects. This gave me a list of 56 possible agents based on what they had to say about what they wanted (or more precisely what they said they wouldn’t consider).

My policy on who to select for submissions is reasonably straightforward. If the agent provides me with sufficient information to be sure that they won’t be interested in my work then I won’t waste my time or theirs. If they provide sufficient information for me to think that they may well be interested in the kind of work I do, then obviously I’ll send them a submission.

If, on the other hand they make it difficult for me to find enough information to make a decision, or if the information they provide is too vague (There is one agent who claims he will consider ‘anything with wit and intelligence’ and as far as I’m concerned he deserves everything he gets – including a submission from me) then I take the view that ‘whenever there’s a doubt, there’s no doubt’ and send them a submission anyway. (See Robert De Niro in Ronin) The agent concerned may be annoyed about this, but in my opinion it’s their own fault for not being specific enough in their submission guidelines.

As an aside, I’d have to say I get a little irritated with some agents (and some publishers and even a few published authors) because of their attitude to unpublished authors.

Essentially I am a little tired of hearing, or more often reading,  complaints about schizophrenics with hypergraphia, hopeless boobs with delusions of talent, people who can’t spell, who don’t understand the basics of grammar and punctuation and won’t do anything about it, people who send submissions in exotic fonts and garish colours or who simply don’t bother to do basic research into who is likely to accept what.

Part of this irritation stems from the fact that I fall into none of these categories, but essentially I get tired of hearing the same gripes over and over again from people who are actually in pretty good jobs and don’t seem to properly appreciate their good fortune.

My suggestion to such people is to try an 8 hour shift in a call centre. I suspect that after this experience their slush piles, or whatever else they’re bitching about, would all of a sudden start to look quite attractive.

Incidently, can anyone tell me what, exactly ‘literary’ fiction is?

I can understand what other genres are because the names are fairly descriptive, so if you’re looking for a western or a detective story, or science fiction, you can be pretty sure of what you’re going to get. The term literary fiction, on the other hand, tells you nothing at all about what the book is about, or what kind of book it is, it simply makes a claim about the quality of the work.

Maybe it would be more honest to call it ‘non-genre’ fiction.

As a matter of fact the only thing I really understand by the term ‘literary’ is that it means that the people who claim to handle it are liable to take a very long time to reply and probably not be very courteous when (and if) they ever do.

So, having had my little rant, I then took a massive trawl through the internet looking for further information on submission guidelines, likes and dislikes etc and this gave me a shorter list of 26 possibilities. (Incidently this represents progress of a sort 2-3 years ago hardly any of the agents listed in the Writers and Artists had websites although most publishing houses did). 

17 of these candidates were willing to accept email submissions (Some actually insist on them, this is more progress, as until recently email submissions were obviously far too hi tech for most agents). While 9 still insisted on postal submissions.

So 17 email submissions later, I have had one rejection (it arrived 2 days after the submission) and 2 acknowledgements. (In previous years I have waited months, sometimes nearly a year to get any response at all from agents). The stated turnaround time  for most of these agents seems to be 6 – 8 weeks (more progress, it’s not so long ago that they were talking in terms of months, one agent even suggested that if no reply had been received within a year, it might be worth making a polite enquiry).

The next step in the project is to print off hard copies of the submissions to the 9 possible candidates who want postal submissions and send them off.

I’ve always tried to ensure that my submissions were of a reasonably professional standard and that any correspondence was courteous (at least on my side). Now I’m trying to be a lot more systematic and even to operate on an industrial (albeit a cottage industry) basis.

I’m hoping that if I do it right this time, maybe I won’t have to do it again.

The Nail That Raises Its Head

15 Jul

The nail that raises

Its head, is the very one

Which gets hammered down.

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

If you stand out from the crowd, you take a risk. Sometimes you choose to stand out, sometimes you don’t get to choose, sometimes you just stand out because of who you are. Being hammered down may not be a pleasant experience at the time, but it’s worth remembering that the nail is not destroyed by being hammered down. It’s actually fulfilling its purpose.

Maybe you don’t agree with my interpretation of this poem, maybe you do. What you take from this kind of writing depends very much on what you bring to it. (Bit Zen? Maybe not, I’m paraphrasing an idea written by Friedrich Nietzsche).

Some years ago, almost by accident, I bought a book called Breathing With The Mind. It was written by Kenneth Verity and it carries the subtitle Verses in Senryu & Hiaku Style.

(This qualification is important; you can’t really write Haiku in English. The Japanese measure the on represents a sound, so while it is analogous to the syllable in English, but is not the same. It’s a shorter measure. Besides a metre that works in one language won’t necessarily work in another. For example, iambic hexameter is the basis for epic poetry in Latin and Ancient Greek where it works very well, but poetry written in hexameter in English tend to sound ridiculous, hence Pope’s use of hexameter in The Rape of the Lock and other mock epics).

So Verity isn’t locking himself into the rigid structure of 17 syllables arranged in the expected 5-7-5 format (and incidentally the Japanese write their Haiku in one line, not three), but he does respect the discipline and purpose of Haiku and Senryu. (Essentially Haiku tends to be more formal and is usually about some aspect of the natural world. It generally tends to evoke sensory perception. Senryu, on the other hand tends to be less formal, often humourous and usually concentrates on some aspect of human behaviour or psychology.

(A quick search of the Internet reveals that there is something of a ‘Haiku scene’ and, depressingly enough, there seem to be all sorts of factions and rules and all the other weary dross that pops up when a ‘scene’ develops).

So anyway, I opened the book and started to read.

The first verse goes like this:-

Strutting around the farmyard

The cockerel-

When did HE ever lay an egg?

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

 

Which made me laugh out loud. Possibly not the most appropriate thing to do in a bookshop, but it reminded me so much of someone I knew.

Kenneth Verity, I gather, has studied yoga, meditation, Sufi philosophy and Zen. He’s also apparently an initiate of the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes (How cool is that?).

But that’s not really the point. The point is that this is one of those books that’s been important to me ever since I first picked it up in a bookshop all those years ago.

Other books that have been similarly important to me have included Albert Camus’ The Rebel, the Tao Te Ching and Watership Down by Richard Adams. But I suppose Breathing With The Mind is different for me because it isn’t just a book that I read, it’s a book that I have a sort of history with.

That history started with the unusual occurrence of finding myself in the poetry section of a bookshop at all. For a sometime student of English Lit, I tend to be surprisingly unliterary and I seldom read poetry. As a matter of fact it would probably be true to say that I’m not, generally speaking, a huge fan of poetry, and you could probably argue that I don’t understand it very well.

(I’m willing to make an exception for Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had a real feeling for the shape and texture of words).

I think part of what puts me off poetry is that it often seems to me to be sloppy with gushing emotions and spurious passions and in general it just seems to me like a perverse means of expression. (By which I mean that it’s a means of expression that seems to deliberately obscure about what is supposedly being expressed). Maybe that assessment says more about me than about poetry, but then again whenever you say anything about anything you reveal something of yourself and if you can’t be perceptive or witty then at the very least you can try to be honest.

Having brought my unlikely purchase home, I spent some time reading it. I’d have to say that the verses vary. I found many of them to be witty, insightful, and often very funny, but there were others that didn’t seem to work for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t as good, it may simply mean that I don’t connect with them in the same way or to the same extent.

Having read through the verses I came to the final section of the book which is essentially about composing your own Haiku. This was something new. Someone who writes poetry trying to encourage other people to write their own verse and offering some practical guidelines about where to start.

Naturally, being somewhat conceited, I gave it a try. I won’t bore you with any of my efforts, I don’t think they’re very good, but I did have some fun writing them, and if nothing else the discipline involved in writing Haiku style verse is a good training for developing precision in your writing. A skill that any aspiring writer should try to develop.

Some years after I bought this book a friend of mine was ill in hospital. She was undergoing some pretty aggressive treatment and while on the one hand she needed some kind of distraction, she was also having difficulty in concentrating for any length of time. She’d always been an avid reader so I gave her a couple of books. One of them was a collection of tales about Mullah Nasrudin and another was Breathing With The Mind. I hope they helped.

Unfortunately my friend died and I suppose after she died I could have retrieved the books I had given her. (They were really only supposed to be on loan). But somehow I didn’t quite feel able to do that. So those books went on their way. I don’t know where they ended up, but hopefully they became a part of someone else’s life.

In the time since then I’ve occasionally thought of replacing my copy of Breathing With The Mind, but somehow never managed to do anything about it. Then, finally I bought a second hand copy on Amazon. (It’s still in print, you can buy it new if you want to, it’s just that I’m a little short on spare cash for books at the moment).

So my new, second hand, copy of the book was delivered yesterday and I must admit to a certain trepidation as I opened it. Sometimes when you revisit something you enjoyed a few years ago you find yourself wondering what you’d ever seen in it. On this occasion I wasn’t disappointed. The magic is still there and it looks like I’m back to writing verses in the Hiaku/Senryu style that I don’t suppose anyone’s ever going to read.

So I suppose I’ve come full circle in a way.

If you want to write your own Haiku, or something approximating to it, then try the following.

1/ Look around you. The subject matter will suggest itself.

2/ Try to make a brief comment about your subject. Just a few words will do.

3/ Typically Haiku/Senryu start with an observation and concludes with a contrasting statement. It’s a bit like the punch line of a joke, and it’s the tension between the two parts of the Haiku that is compelling when it’s done well. The Japanese talk of it in terms of cutting.

4/ Rewrite and rewrite again. Experiment with synonyms and then when you think you’re finished, polish it a bit more until you have your seventeen syllables over three lines. (Don’t fret if you’re out by a syllable or two. What you’re aiming for is brevity and precision, as I’ve said before you can’t really write authentic Haiku in English anyway, so your paying respect to the tradition not trying to slavishly copy it.

5/ Read Basho (In English his name sounds as though it should belong to a clown. But there’s a reason why he’s the best-known writer of Haiku in the West. And one of the best loved in Japan).

6/ Don’t worry if you’re not very good. Neither am I. It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the best you can be. Attempting to write Haiku can be as much about sharpening your perception as it is about writing something that might impress someone else.

We can’t all be artists but we can all try to make the best of what we are.

Spirit Cat (Part 4)

16 Jun

Stairway to Heaven?

 

The cops were standing around in the street, talking amongst themselves.

The street was on a steep slope down to the primary school at the bottom of the hill and the ground also fell away to one side of the pavement. The houses were all reached by going down a flight of stairs from the pavement to get to the front door.

There was also a longer staircase that led down from this street to the lower level of the next street along. The area was a bit run down. There was moss growing on the walls and there were potholes in the road.

Some of the steps on that long set of stairs down to the next street had been broken loose by local kids rolling an oil drum down them. The people had complained, but the council never did a thing about it. Cut backs, they said. What could you do?

“Same MO as before?”

“Seems like. Bastard comes along with a clipboard. Stands around looking all bothered and confused. The girl comes up and asks what’s the problem.”

“Or she doesn’t and he asks her for directions. Works either way.”

“Whatever. Anyway, the basic pitch is the same. He’s a driver working for a vet. He’s got a poor little kitten in the back of his van. She’s just had an operation and he’s supposed to take it back to this poor little old lady who’s all sad and lonely and worried ‘cause her kitten’s not well.”

“And she couldn’t come and collect it ‘cause she’s not well either.”

“But he can’t find the address and can the little girl help him, I know.”

“What a prick.”

“Well, we know that’s what he pulled on the last little girl ‘cause she told the Female and Child Officer all about it.”

“Lucky the bastard got chased away that time.”

“Neighbours thought they were doing the right thing pulling that dog off him. Soon as they heard what the little girl had to say they were pissed off they hadn’t left him to it. Maybe brought a long a few more dogs to help out.”

“Anyone heard what’s happening with that dog?”

“Well, he had to go to court. Sheriff had a look at him and decided he wasn’t dangerous. No one’s come forward to claim him, so he’s up for adoption.”

“Family going to have him?”

“Seems like. They think the sun shines out of his hairy little arse.”

“Well, wouldn’t you?”

“He’s just a dog, for crying out loud. Who cares?”

“So anyway, forensics have confirmed it was the same bastard as did the kid we found in the park. Is that right?”

“Dead right.”

“So is he lucky finding these kids or is he watching them? Does he know their routine?”

Shrugs all round.

“Pity we can’t ask him.”

“So the bastard makes his pitch and the girl goes with him to look at his map and stroke his kitten.”

“Don’t say it like that. Sounds like a euphemism.”

“Whatever.”

No one felt like laughing.

“So he does what he does.”

“Yeah. He does what he does.”

“But then it all goes tits up.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Well, she says there was this cat. White cat. Sitting right on top of the van.”

“So what? He allergic to cats?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. All I do know is he doesn’t like the cat. Tries to hit it. The cat runs off and the stupid bastard goes chasing after it. Cat goes down the stairs. Bastard goes after the cat.”

“Never liked cats much. I mean, with a dog you get unconditional love. They treat you like their own personal God. Cats just fucking use you.”

“Anyway, one broken step later…”

“First time I ever saw a plus side to vandalism.”

“You think?”

“Well, see for yourself.”

 

 

He was sprawled across the stairs; head tilted at the wrong angle. His cold, dead eyes staring into eternity. The Nightmare Man. Nightmares over.

And as he lay there unmoving, growing ever colder against the concrete, a sleek white cat approached him, sinuously weaving her silent path towards him.

When she came to a point where she could look down into his face, she sat down, her neat white paws placed with precision together in front of her. She stared at him. Her yellow green eyes gazing intently into his empty sightless eyes. Softly she began to purr.