Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Friday, 29 October 2010

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Quote of the day

The government is unresponsive to the needs of the little man. Under 5'7", it is impossible to get your congressman on the phone.
Woody Allen

Review: Medium Raw

Food writing is a difficult art in that it doesn't allow for much scope.  leaving aside cookery books,  food writing tends to gravitate toward one of two poles. At the one, they epicurean tomes filled with raptures about outdoor banquets under sunny Tuscan skies,  culinary adventures involving munching on grill sparrows at a Hanoi market stall, or word pictures of Christmas banquets against a snowy New England backdrop.  At the other pole we have nutritionists and pinched-faced books on the virtues of Vegetarianism.  The one thing that is very rare is a cynical, biting account of what it's really like in the kitchen by someone who has seen the dark underbelly of modern food culture.

At least that was the case before Anthony Bourdain came along with his sleeper best seller of 2000, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It was the first to take a jaundiced eye to the entire food culture from the point of view of a battle-scarred veteran of the grill.  Bourdain revealed the world of top-flight restaurants, particularly in New york, as an insane mix of alcohol, drugs, eccentricity, sex, hard work, long hours, money, illusion, delusion, and burn-out that is as addictive as cocaine–of which there was a lot, too.  The book's success surprised everyone; including Bourdain, who found himself catapulted overnight from being a failed chef in a tenth-rate kitchen to the life of an international celebrity and television personality.   Ten years later, Bourdain follows up with his new book,  Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (2010).

Seen from the perspective of a man who is older, more responsible, and (hopefully) wiser, Bordain is still as cynical, opinated, foul-mouths, acerbic, dry-witted, and insightful as he was in Kitchen Confidential. He also hasn't lost his talent for vivid writing as this passage about a highly sensual and illegal meal of roasted ortolan bunting shows:
In the darkness under my shroud, I realize that in my eagerness to fully enjoy this experience, I’ve closed my eyes. First comes the skin and the fat. It's hot. So hot that I’m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out—like a high-speed trumpet player, breathing around the ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I don’t burn myself. I listen for the sounds of jaws against bone around me but hear only others breathing, the muffled hiss of rapidly moving air through teeth under a dozen linen napkins. There’s a vestigial flavor of Armagnac, low-hanging fumes of airborne fat particles, an intoxicating, delicious miasma. Time goes by. Seconds? Moments? I don’t know. I hear the first snap of tiny bones from somewhere near and decide to brave it. I bring my molars slowly down and through my bird’s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. I’m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue, slowly—ever so slowly—to chew. With every bite, the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, had been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.

What is left is the fat. A coating of nearly imperceptible yet unforgettable-tasting abdominal fat. I undrape, and, around me, one after another, the other napkins fall to the table, too, revealing glazed, blissed-out expressions, the beginnings of guilty smiles, an identical just-****ed look on every face.
 Unlike Kitchen Confidential, Medium Raw isn't a complete narrative, but rather a collection of essays where Bourdain discusses a wide range of topics orbiting around the culinary culture.  With his typical no-holds barred approach, Bourdain takes on the Food Network (a bastion of mediocrity), restraunteur Alice Waters (villain), Fergus Henderson (hero), education (can't even teach young people how to cook an egg), becoming a chef (don't unless you're incredibly talent, hard workings, and insane), his own youthful indiscretions (hard drugs and self destructive behaviour), the Beautiful People (ugly, stupid and evil), and being cool (once you're a parent, forget it.  It's just creepy).  Along the way we're also treated to a tour of all sorts of exotic eateries in incredible locations, the future of the Great American Hamburger, and the ghastliness of a steady diet of cordon bleau.    Sometimes his pronouncements do go on a bit, but his passion for food and the people behind it comes through clearly and he's also matured enough to admit that some of the shots he took at the celebrity chefs like Emeril for selling out weren't wholely justified after Bourdain realised that these chefs had often jumped on the back of a tiger that they didn't dare let go of. 

Medium Raw is a fun and often fascinating read, but like many books of essays, the good stuff is right at the front and by the time we reach the last chapters it's a bit like coming to the end of a delightful buffet only to discover the stale buns and drying onion slices that the chef tried to hide.  The litany of names and faces becomes an uninteresting parade of dishes and I for one wanted a brandy and the bill.  Overall, however, Medium Raw does make for a very satisfying second course from a man who knows a chop from a cheese board.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Quote of the day

Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
John le Carre

Rejection slips II

An alternative way to handle rejection.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Quote of the day

The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.
Thomas Carlyle

Rejection slips

Rejection is something that every writer has to deal with.  You'll notice I didn't say "aspiring writer" or "novice writer"; I said "writer".   The sad fact is that no matter how successful you may become, you'll still have to contend with editors saying "Not today, thank you".  True, as you become more established you won't get rejection slips so often, but they'll still come in.

Rejection slips are disheartening and it's often difficult not to take them personally.  I certainly have from time to time.  You can't sweat blood over a manuscript for months on end and then feel a bit put out when your reward is a form letter that hasn't even been signed.  However, don't let disappointment turn into despair.  There many best-selling works that have sold in the millions that started their literary lives bouncing from publisher to publisher before finally getting into print.  George MacDonald Fraser, James Joyce, Stephen King, and J K Rowling all faced multiple rejections before getting published.  Granted, I often wish that Miss Rowling  had skipped sending off that last submission, but the principle is still valid.

The thing to bear in mind is something I was surprised to discover myself: Not all editors who return my work are piggy-eyed, illiterate, uncultured vermin who wouldn't know good writing if it hit them square in the face tied to Hellfire missile.  Manuscripts get rejected for many reasons and it often has nothing to do with the quality of the work.  Publishers cater to particular audiences with particular tastes.  Sending off a Tom Clancy-style thriller to a romance publisher isn't going to have much of a chance.  Then there's the problem of everyone having the same great idea at the same time.  Do you have a brilliant idea for a novel about a sexy female vampire detective in San Francisco?  I hate to break it to you, but so did 999,999 other people. 
It's even possible to be rejected by being successful.  I've been turned down by some magazines, for example, because they'd just published one of my articles and didn't want my name showing up twice in a row. 

The one sort of rejection slip you definitely shouldn't feel discouraged over is the one with a note scribbled on it or the email with the electronic equivalent.  So long as the note isn't "We all hate you and hope that you're eaten by rabid weasels," you've just been given proof that you've taken a step up the ladder.  Editors are incredibly busy people and taking the time to say anything besides the usual form letter is proof that they see that you have potential.  I wished that I'd realised this when I received my first rejection letter as a teenager.  I was so put out by the editor pointing out my messy typing and done-to-death plot that I didn't realise that what he was saying was, "Keep sending them, kid."

In the end, the best way to handle rejection is to persevere.  If you've have talent and if you've put the work in, you'll eventually find your market.  In the meantime, approach rejection slips as a hobby.  Keep a scrap book of letters and email printouts and treat them like a stamp collection.  One more slip from Random House and I'll have every publisher in New York.

If nothing else, it will give a prop to use on the book tour.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Quote of the day

If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad.
Lord Byron

Write a novel in a month

November is National Novel-Writing Month and the organisers invite the public to dust off the keyboard and get started on that novel they've been meaning to write all these years. 

The goal is simple:  On 1 November, start writing your novel with the goal of producing 50,000 words by 30 November.  Personally, I'd have preferred a month with 31 days, but there you are. That means you need to write about 1,700 words every day, which is not as hard as it sounds.  The idea is not to sit and fuss over every word or turn of phrase; it's to crank out as much as you can in the given time.  What you'll end up with won't win you the Booker Prize (though by today's standards, I wouldn't be too sure), but you'll have that hardest part of novel writing out of the way:  A first draught.  December is when you sit down and start polishing it.

This comes along at a very good time for me.  For the past eight months I've been making notes for a new novel and this seems like as good an excuse as any to get started on it.  Next month, I'll be cranking out my 1,700 words and posting a diary of my progress here on The Quill & The Keyboard.  You're invited to tag along and hopefully it will inspire a few procrastinators to sharpen their pen nibs, smooth the foolscap, and freshen that bowl of roses on the writing desk.

For more tips on getting started, Wired has a wiki on National Novel-Writing Month.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Quote of the day

A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.
Robertson Davies

Review: The Winds of Gath

The Winds of Gath (1967) is the first installment in E C Tubb's 33 volume Dumarest Saga with the last book published in 2008.  Acknowledged even by Tubb as a formulaic series, the Dumarest Saga never feels like a pulp creation.  The combination of repeating familiar elements (even whole paragraphs) in each book combined with vivid imagery and an economical writing style that never wastes a word makes the Dumarest books page turners that can be read in an afternoon, yet are guaranteed to satisfy like a trustworthy brand.

But what really makes the Dumarest Saga so successful is Tubb's title character, Earl Dumarest.  A loner, soldier of fortune, infinitely resourceful and with a strong sense of honour, Dumarest is a man who can never stay in any one place or form normal human relationships because he is driven by a terrible need to find the home he ran away from as a ten-year old boy; the planet Earth.

The Dumarest Saga is set in the far future after mankind has colonised most of the galaxy.   Centuries after the collapse of a Galactic Empire that has left the galaxy a collection of feudal states, life has become hard with a technologically advanced nobility lording over planets reduced to near peasantry.  Dumarest is a Traveller; part of a fringe group that roam the spaceways in search of adventure, fortune, or just a better life.  It's a hard life with the risk of being stranded on a backward planet with no way of earning a passage off–provided one hasn't suffered in the one in five chance of dying while travelling "Low" in freezer compartments designed for livestock.  Dumarest risks this, and the many other perils, in his search to find Earth.  Unfortunately, Earth has passed into legend and scarcely anyone believes him when he says that it actually exists and that he came from there.  Worse, in his travels, Dumarest soon makes powerful enemies such as the emotionless Cyclan, a brotherhood dedicated to pure logic bent on galactic domination who see Dumarest as an obstacle to their goals. 

The Winds of Gath sets the tone for the series with Dumarest awakening from his frozen sleep to discover that the freighter he'd booked passage on has been diverted by a powerful noble to the planet Gath; a desolate, barely habitable world without agriculture, industry, or even proper settlements; a deathtrap for a man like Dumarest.  The only inhabitants of Gath are other travellers who've been stranded and face the prospect of starving to death in their tiny shanty town and the retinues of wealthy tourists who exploit the hapless travellers like beasts of burden.  The tourists themselves are there to experience Gath's one attraction:  The Winds.

In a desperate bid to earn a ticket off Gath before he starves, Dumaerst enters a bloody gladiatorial contest organised by the sadistic Prince of Emmened.  Defeating the Prince's champion, Dumarest falls under the protection of the Matriarch of Kund and her ward, the Lady Seena Thoth.  As is expected in these sort of situations, a romance begins to blossom between Dumarest and the Lady Thoth, which is complicated by repeated attempts on her life.  Or is Dumarest the target?  And who is behind the attacks?  The vengeful prince?  The Matriarch's Cyclan adviser?  Someone else?

Intrigues and violence move the story along at a fast clip until the story is torn apart by one of Tubb's signature plot devices:  A natural phenomenon that borders on the metaphysical.  The Winds of Gath that the toursits have come to experience are caused by a peculiar crystals that form a coastal mountain range.  When the seasonal winds blow against them, they produce sounds that make the people who hear them think that they are reliving past experiences.  Long dead parents can be heard, lost lovers found again, old triumphs revisited, and past sorrows eased.  It's all very nice, except this year the winds turn into a howling gale that bring not just memories, but death and madness.  It also neatly kicks over the traces that allow Dumarest to solve the mysteries and get off Gath with a whole skin.

No one would pretend that The Winds of Gath is high literature, but as simple escapist entertainment it excels and Tubb's writing style and characterisations make the Dumarest Saga one series well worth revisiting.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Quote of the day

I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.

English Professor, Ohio University

Review: The Specialty of the House

"The Specialty of the House" by Stanley Ellin (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1948) is one of those stories that follows you around and taps you on the shoulder at least expected moments. It's a very short story and one that is deceptively simple with it's plot about two men who frequent an out-of-the-way gourmet restaurant run by an eccentric proprietor who only serves one dish per night, but what at first seems like a '40s version of My Dinner with Andre soon becomes a tale of subtle horror.  Indeed, I can't cook lamb or even read about certain dining experiences without having a feeling of cold fingers brushing against my neck.

If you haven't read it, I shan't spoil the surprise for you.  In fact, that would be rather hard to do because within the first couple of pages you'll figure out what is going to happen.  That is not a flaw, by the way, that is what makes "The Specialty of the House" so gripping.  We follow metropolitan businessman Costain as his boss Laffler, a man of solitary habits, invites him to share the unique experience of dining at Sbirro's.  We enter the dark, old fashioned dining room that was a rarity even in the '40s.  We share Costain's bemusement at the clientele being composed only of men who bend over their plates like solemn worshipers of some pagan god.  We feel his puzzlement at the menu that offers no choice and the lack of alcohol or even condiments on the table.  We then experience his and Laffler's near orgasmic reaction to their meal that is vivid and just a bit repellent.

After dinner, Laffler explains to Costain why he is disappointed that the rarely served "special" wasn't on the menu that night–a dish available nowhere else on Earth:

'Ah,' said Laffler delightedly. 'And that is only part of the story. You heard me mention the special which unfortunately was not on the menu tonight. What you have just eaten is as nothing when compared to the absolute delights of that special!'

'Good Lord!' cried Costain. 'What is it? Nightingale's tongues? Filet of unicorn?'

'Neither,' said Laffler. 'It is lamb.'


Laffler remained lost in thought for a minute. 'If,' he said at last, 'I were to give you in my own unstinted words my opinion of this dish, you would judge me completely insane. That is how deeply the mere thought of it affects me. It is neither the fatty chop, nor the too solid leg; it is, instead, a select portion of the rarest sheep in existence and is named after the species - lamb Amirstan.'

The air of intrigue introduced by the mention of lamb Armistan is magnified by the appearance of the Sbirro himself, a Cheshire cat of a man who is a restaurateur with a bit of high priest thrown in as well.  His explanation of his epicurean philosophy, of how his restaurant is a haven that provides a sense of security and fulfills a human need,  and of why lamb Amirstan is so rarely offered only confirms what we already suspect.  When a fortnight later a waiter warns Laffler not to go into the kitchen, we realise that the word "lamb" has a particular significance.

The power of the story lies in Ellin's talent for suggestion.  Nothing actually happens in the story that would attract a modern horror buff.  Nothing overt happens at all.  Ellin tells us early on what is going to happen and his steady drip of clues only confirms what we already know.  What is maddening is that his protagonists remain utterly unaware of what is going on and we have no way of changing that.

The propriety and quiet of the dining room only makes things worse.  Indeed, it is in many ways a very English story.  That's probably why when it was adapted for television on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Laffler was played by Robert Morley and two later, and I feel superior, versions were produced by the BBC for Fear on Four and The Price of Fear. Perhaps that's why I always think of the story as set in London rather than New York.

In all, "The Specialty of the House" is a story that works well on several levels and shows what a writer can do when he uses the reader's imagination to do the heavy lifting in a story.

It's also the best argument for dining ala carte that I've yet come across.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Quote of the day

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.
Kurt Vonnegut

Review: Wilt in Nowhere

Wilt in Nowhere (2004) confirms that Tom Sharpe is the most butt-clenchingly funny author in Britain today.  I say "butt-clenchingly" because Mr Sharpe's forté is the sort of black farce where the characters, most of whom are thoroughly unpleasant, become tangled in a bizarre web of circumstances that result in their suffering an ever-increasing avalanche of sexual, legal and scatological misadventures that becomes so great that the reader can't help but feel sorry for the poor bastards no matter how much they deserve their comeuppance.

The fourth of the Wilt novels, Wilt in Nowhere finds the eternally put-upon Henry Wilt once again longing for a temporary escape from his teaching job at the insanely PC Fenlands College of Arts and Technology; his loving, dim-witted, yet formidable wife Eva; and most especially his ghastly quadruplet of pubescent daughters who could drive Albert Schweitzer to kicking his dog inside of five minutes. He hits on the idea of bundling his family off to visit their wealthy relatives in the United States while Wilt, begging off because of fictional teaching commitment, goes on a walking holiday where he plans to rediscover England by wandering the countryside without map or guide until he hasn't a clue to where he is.

This being a Tom Sharpe novel, the plan starts to unravel the moment Wilt steps out the door.  Before they realise it, Eva and her daughters are the centre of an international drug smuggling investigation, their American relatives are having the details of their sex lives blasted across the countryside at 10,000 decibels, and Wilt is in hospital feigning amnesia–which is just as well because he's unknowingly been swept up in an arson/murder/paedophila case involving a shadow cabinet minister. 

The one drawback of a Tom Sharpe novel is that, being a farce, it's impossible to relate how incredibly funny a particular episode is.  The humour doesn't come from a neat turn of language, although some of Sharpe's descriptions and character reactions are priceless, but rather from the horrible train wreck that you can see coming even if no one on the page can.  Where Sharpe excels is in always allowing the train to hit and making sure that the thing hit is filled with satirical fresh eggs.  It also helps that Sharpe never hesitates in making his opinions known and that he is never one to let political correctness prevent him from driving his point home.  In fact, if he manages to skewer the PC brigade like a beetle on a pin while doing so, that's a bonus. 

Also, Sharpe has found in his alter ego of Henry Wilt a brilliant comic creation.  He's not only a perfect everyman figure who embodies what most middle-aged men really think about their lives when they are completely honest with themselves, but he exhibits an incredible talent as the only sane man in an insane world.  It's a sanity that allows Wilt to drive others completely 'round the bend by making seemingly innocent and reasonable remarks that turn out to be logical time bombs waiting to go off.

Wilt in Nowhere isn't the best of the Wilt novels. It lacks the go-for-the-jugular sense of the first two and it's disappointing that Wilt spends the entire middle part of the book unconscious, but it's still a solid bit of work that shows that Mr Sharpe hasn't gone dull.  Sorry, the pun was just lying there.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Quote of the day

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
Groucho Marx

Review: City

City (1952) by Clifford D. Simak is a typical example of a science fiction book of the early 1950s. After the war, publishers discovered to their surprise that there was actually a profitable market for science fiction.  Unfortunately, while anthologies like The Omnibus of Science Fiction sold steadily and sold well, there was a lack of book-length works.   This isn't surprising.  The natural home of American science fiction had been the short story since it developed in the pulp magazines of the 1920s. Short stories and novellas there were aplenty, but novels were few and far between.  As a dodge around this problem, postwar authors and publishers hit upon a simple solution:  Take a series of related short stories, add some sort of framing device to connect them, and call them "novels".

The result of this was classics such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.  It was also the genesis of City.

Beginning life as eight short stories published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine between 1944 and 1951,  City is presented as a collection of tales recited by a race of intelligent talking dogs in the far future for whom man and all his works have passed into legend and folklore.

The title of the book comes from  that of the first story, "City", which is also the most conventional and is only tangentially connected with the rest of the book; dealing with how the development of atomic power, hydroponics and the helicopter lead to the end of cities as people move to settle on now worthless country land.  The idea of cities vanishing as the urban population disperses may seem novel to modern readers, but by the end of the second world war it was quite a common theme as science fiction writers caught on to proposals to spread out the cities to limit damage from aerial bombardment and, later, fission bombs. 

The rest of the stories centre around the Webster family, their robot butler Jenkins in particular and their part in the destiny of Earth.  I say "Earth" instead of "man" because by the midpoint in the book the human race has migrated to Jupiter where they find fulfillment as a genetically engineered race of lizards.

You had to be there.

The rest of the novel follows the fortunes of Jenkins and the race of talking dogs created by one of the Websters.  Ostensibly, the story is supposed to be about how the dogs find their own destiny and build their own civilisation as they contend with the "wild" robots left behind by departed humanity, mutants, a handful of apathetic humans holed up behind a force field in Geneva, and ants.  However, nothing really happens aside a lot of melancholy reflecting, musing, and reminiscing.  Supposedly the dogs are creating a new and better culture and Jenkins, who becomes their mentor, even takes steps to protect them from any lingering human influence, but the dogs never achieve much beyond pseudo-Tibetan mysticism and persuading every other creature on the planet to stop eating one another for no adequately explored reason.

Not surprisingly,  the play out of City involves man, mutant, robot, dog abandoning the Earth in their turn in favour of greener pastures in space or parallel dimensions until the ants reign supreme. 

Written over a period of eight years, City is an uneven work with the writing style ranging from the matter of fact to the lyrical.  As the story progresses, the tone becomes increasingly gentle and pastoral, which is what eventually defeats Simak.  He may have been going for an air of resignation in the face of the inevitable, but he sets such a quiet and peaceful atmosphere on everything from early on that he seems reluctant to disturb the calm.  It quickly becomes readily apparent after the first tale that it isn't a matter of Simak's protagonists not being able to do anything about their fate, but rather of their refusing to do so.  All of his main characters are so terrified of doing anything in defending themselves that might kick over the traces that the reader's patience is gradually tested and by the last chapter is lost entirely.  It's almost as if Simak wrote an unintentional satire on pacifism.

The single most interesting subplot in the book is that of Jenkins, who spends some 20,000 years in the service of the Webster family and their canine heirs.  Jenkins's story is often quite moving and it's rather a shame that it is trapped in a flawed science fiction narrative.  Had Simak sat down to write a conventional tale of an old house more loved by the aged butler than the heirs who've moved on to more modern and less worthy distractions, Simak would have a had a much stronger and more memorable novel but I suspect that was a bit beyond his abilities.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Quote of the day

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
George Orwell

George MacDonald Fraser on 'Desert Island Discs' - Part 3

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Quote of the day

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963)

George MacDonald Fraser on 'Desert Island Discs' - Part 2

Monday, 11 October 2010

Quote of the day

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.
H. L. Mencken


Like spelling, grammar is a vital skill for the writer.  True, grammar does seem a tedious subject that brings back memories of hours in stuffy classrooms that could have been better spent on the playground honing conkers skills, but there's a reason for all that tedium.  To put it simply, grammar is a tremendously powerful tool for using language.  True, it's hard to master and many of the rules are annoying because they're so easy to break and get away with, but there is a great difference between breaking a rule out of ignorance and deliberately breaking one out of conscious decision born of knowledge.

It's a bit like photography.  Anyone can take a blurry photo that's poorly framed and overexposed, but for such a photo to become art requires one of two things: Either an artistic judgment that knows when to misframe the shot and throw the camera settings off, or dumb luck.   Hint as to which one to pick:  Dumb luck doesn't work very well.

It's the same with grammar.  knowing how a sentence is put together allows you to write with ease and confidence.  You know that your writing is coming out sounding clear and authoritative.  You also know that when you break the rules, it will be with the proper effect that you can judge rather than crossed fingers and a muttered prayer.

If it's been while since your school grammar lessons or you feel that you need a bit of revision, the Internet can provide help that's a click away.  I recommend this Open University course as a starting point.  After that, seek out other courses and books on the subject.  Once you've had a refresher or two under your belt, start reading with a trained eye to spot how others use and misuse grammar, then start applying what you've learned to your own writing.

You'll be surprised at the difference it makes.


Friday, 8 October 2010

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Quote of the day

What work I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it.

Who was it who said, "Blessed is the man who has found his work"? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind. Mark you, he says his work--not somebody else's work. The work that is really a man's own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man's work and cannot lose it. When we talk about the great workers of the world we really mean the great players of the world. The fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil that they bear never can hope to do anything great. How can they when their souls are in a ferment of revolt against the employment of their hands and brains? The product of slavery, intellectual or physical, can never be great.
Mark Twain

Feeding the dragon

Blogging has come a long way since the days when it was the Internet version of the CB radio.  With services like Blogger and Wordpress, setting up and maintaining a blog is almost effortless and even the greenest computer tyro can reach a potential audience of billions in a matter of minutes.

Unfortunately, one thing hasn't changed about blogging and that is the problem of what I call "feeding the dragon". The key to a successful blog is to get people coming back on a regular basis and the way to do that is to post items frequently.  The more often you post, the more likely people will return.  If you're posting only once a week, you're going to get a very low rate of return unless you're a major celebrity or giving away free iPads.  If you're posting at irregular intervals of three or four months, you're going to be invisible. At least daily should be your target and even more often if you can manage it.

But hang on,you say,  if I have to post so often how am I going to find enough material?  I'll be dry in a week.
That's feeding the dragon.

Finding things to write about every day or even several times a day starts with planning your blog.  What do you plan to write about?  Does it interest you?  Do you know much about the topic?  Do you want to learn more about it?  If answer no to any of these, then go back to square one and rethink your blog.  If you enthusiastic about your topic, if you have a lot to say and can't wait to read up on it, then you're bound to gather a huge supply of material that will keep you going for years.  On  the other hand, if you are only writing about a topic because it's in the public eye at the moment, don't know much about it, and forget about it the moment you hit "send", then that well will dry up very fast.

That being said, there are a few tricks you can use to keep your blogs coming.

This being the digital age, exploit it.  Subscribe to RSS feeds and create Google alerts.  Develop a morning routine of checking your best sources for new information.  Use social networks like Facebook and Twitter as additional sources.  Get things set up right and topics will be waiting for you in the morning in you inbox or browser just waiting to be sorted through.

Along similar lines, encourage feedback from your readers. Allow comments on your posts, set up polls, prominently display your email link.  Soon you'll find your readers doing a lot of leg work for you.

Another idea is to keep your posts short.  User studies show that when people are online they don't like to scroll, so if you want more posts that grab people's attention, break up that long post into several smaller one.  You'll cover more days and they'll be more effective.

Insurance is a handy thing and keeping a post in reserve is good insurance.  If you come up with an item that is likely to stay fresh and interesting for a time, tuck it away against that slow day when you can't find anything to write about or the world keeps you from doing any writing.

One tactic I use is to give myself a couple of days off on the weekends.  My readership tends to slack off anyway then, so I use Saturdays and Sundays to post something different, such as the book readings on this blog.  It makes for a change for my readers and I get a chance to recharge my batteries.

If all else fails, use the old newspaper columnist's trick and write about your personal life.  It may be as dull as a railway cafe knife, but if you write about how dull it is, you'll be on to a winner.

Or write about your dog.  If you don't have one, get one.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Pohl on collaboration

Frederik Pohl writes about how he approaches collaboration.  It's well worth a look. 

Quote of the day

I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.
E. B. White

The Stone Tape: Writing for television

Television technology has shot ahead over the past sixty years.  Today, television producers can do things that their colleagues only ten years ago could only dream of.  Editing, which was once almost impossible on the small screen, has become a matter of drag and drop.  Video cameras have gone from static monsters to portable high-definition machines that are inexorably forcing film cameras off the market.  And, of course, digital technology means that a producer on a tight budget can do things that once required giant studios with deep pockets. However, despite all of this, television remains a very different animal from cinema.  No matter how big the television screens get, how high the definition, and how sophisticated the home theatre systems, it isn't possible for cinema and television to merge into one.  At least, not without the offspring being less than the sum of the parts.

Looking at television today, it's clear that many producers believe exactly the opposite.  Switch on the talking fish tank any night and you can find programme after programme filled with long zooms, fast cuts, helicopter shots, wobbly cams, shots where people are barely in the frame, and actors adopting that maddening habit of modern films of whispering their lines instead of speaking in a normal volume–much less projecting.  If you don't keep your eyes glued to the screen every second you miss half of what's going on and if you do, you still miss the other half.  Why is this?  As in any profession, incompetence explains most of it.  The rest comes from a combination of ambition and inferiority complex on the part of producers, directors, and actors who see television as merely a springboard to the "real" world of cinema.  Unfortunately, they're missing the whole point.

For all the modern conceits, television is not a junior version of cinema.  Cinema is a communal experience where a person sits in the dark with many other people all sharing the same experience to the exclusion of everything else–with the exception of one's date and a large tub of buttered popcorn.   Television is a more individual or family experience that must compete with many outside distractions  Though it uses images as well as sound, television is much more a medium of the ear and of the mind than cinema.  This is partly due to television's roots in radio, but also due to the fact that television is a much more intimate medium than film.  This was true when television sets were the electronic hearths around which families gathered in the late 20th century and it is even more true today with television available on desktop screens, tiny media players, and even over cellular phones.

To understand this, let's look at a very good piece of television writing:  The Stone Tape, produced by the BBC and aired in 1972.  Only repeated once the following year and not seen again until its recent release on DVD, The Stone Tape has the reputation of being one of the most frightening, and certainly one of the best written, stories ever made for television.

Written by the legendary Nigel Kneale (the man behind the Quatermass series) The Stone Tape (script here) is set in a Victorian Gothic folly of a country house that's been taken over and converted into a research centre by an electronics firm.  Peter Brock and his young, over-enthusiastic crew of engineers arrive like an unruly group of schoolboys gearing themselves up for their task of developing a new recording medium ("Wagner's Ring Cycle on a ball bearing") to replace magnetic tape and steal a march on the Japanese.

The only snag in Brock's plans is that the computer storage room isn't finished after five months because the workmen refused to go back in and walked off the job.   It turns out that the reason why is that the room in question is haunted.  Or, at least, the image of a running, screaming woman appears at intervals.  What is peculiar is that people see the apparition to varying degrees.  Some see and hear it faintly, some not at all, and some, such as the team computer programmer Jill Greeley experience it so strongly that they can't stay in the room at all.

Brock is intrigued and treats the "ghost" like a scientific phenomenon.  Like an unwinding detective story, we are carried along as Brock and Jill uncover the history of the room, which is part of an ancient structure upon which the house was built; the apparition, which is that of a serving maid who died in a fall off a blind flight of stairs in the room in the 1890s; and of the appearances.  Eventually, Brock realises that the room is the key to the new recording medium that he's been searching for.  Somehow, the stones have recorded the last moments of the girl's life.

This doesn't come a moment too soon because Brock has a rival at the company in the form of pompous, impractical "practical" man who is forever going about with dye-stained hands in his quest to build a computerised washing machine.  If Brock can't deliver on The Big One, than his cutting-edge scientific research will give way to an overpriced joke of a home appliance.  Unfortunately, he doesn't know how the stone recordings work or how to make it play back on command.

It goes beyond unfortunate to tragic that Brock and his team are so obsessed with the physical aspect of the phenomenon that they can't see what Jill senses from the very start; that something terrifying is behind it all and the more that's learned the more frightening it becomes.  More and more questions arise, yet only Jill cares.  How did the girl die?  Why was she running?  Why did she scream like that?  What was she doing at the top of stairs that went nowhere?  Why did one person go mad after being in the room and another run like a scared rabbit?  How did the recording manage to cause the computer to type out "save" and "pray"?  Is the recording just of sound and image?  Could a personality be there?  Is the dead girl still trapped and suffering in the stonework?  Question upon question heaps up. Brock ignores their implications as he tries to force the recording to play back at his command, but he goes one step too far and rather than mastering it, he erases it (and the girl) from the stones.

Having blundered his main chance and, worse, lost to a washing machine, Brock ignores Jill as she uses the computer to continue analysing the data collected.  He even refuses to listen as, alarmed, she tries to tell him that there was another recording under the 19th century one; a much, much older one going back at least 7000 years.  A recording of something that is still aware and malevolent.

If you haven't seen it yet, I'll leave the synopsis at that.

What's interesting for us here is that The Stone Tape uses the nature of television rather, as is too often the case today, seeing it as a limitation to fight against.  There's very little in the way of special effects and what there is wouldn't impress a jaded 21st century viewer.  There are, however, impressive sound effects that push the story along and raise the hairs on the back of the neck at appropriate moments.  Clever editing, frequent cuts and incessant background music aren't the thing here.  What carries the load is powerful dialogue and actors who can deliver their lines without emoting and with projection.  Words provide the exposition, they reveal character, they are the medium of conflict.  Neat little throwaways like "Just an amateur opinion.  Qualified amateur" give real insights into the characters and their relationships.

For over half the scenes, you could turn your back to the screen and still be totally involved because of the dialogue.  From simple conversations we learn that Peter Brock is brilliant, but he's also manipulative, ambitious, and willing betray his wife and kids in order to inflict his overcharged libido on female members of staff.  Even without ghosts we know that Jill is an extremely intelligent woman with emotions as sensitive as the raw nerves of a burn victim; one who can't fit into the tight, schoolboy team that Brock surrounds himself with.  We don't need set pieces or blazing arguments to get this across.  In Kneale's script, it comes across in conversations about Father Christmas. 

Kneale, however, had been working in television for over twenty years and he understood the medium.  It may have been a household item that people used as electronic wallpaper and where writers had fallen back on restating plot points two or three times in a programme to cover people who went to make a sandwich or put the cat out, but Kneale understood that the television in the living room or on the bedroom dresser made it an intimate medium and a clever author could exploit that intimacy.  The Stone Tape is a teleplay that you can half watch while doing the jigsaw and you'll come away with a passable bit of drama, but if you start to pay attention, if you let it draw you in like a trusted friend telling you a ghost story over the embers of a dying fire on Christmas Eve, then it really gets its hooks into you.  You start picking up on those questions that Jill notices and no one else does.  You start seeing their implications.  What Kneale says to get you to suspend disbelief and put you in the right state of mind that sets you up for what he does not say, so your imagination fills in the gaps–or worse, darkens the shadows.  It doesn't matter what your mind comes up with; it will be a thousand times more effective than anything that CGI could ever deliver.  When the climax comes, it turns "Oh, that's a bit scary" into "Oh, sweet Jesus!  I'm sleeping with the lights and the radio on!"

The moral to take from this is:  When writing for television or any other medium, don't fight against it; learn the nature of the medium, it's strengths and weaknesses, and use them to your advantage.

And for heaven's sake, put it in the script notes that the actors should PROJECT!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Quote of the day

If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.
Hermann Hesse

Review: The Creature from Cleveland Depths

Originally posted on Tales of Future Past.

The modern smart phones are clever little things. They update our calendars, they write our memos, they check our email, they text our messages and they generally keep us in touch with our colleagues in the workaday world. They can even be used as phones!

But is this enough? Couldn't someone invent something just a little bit better to keep us alert and efficient on the job? Science fiction writer Fritz Leiber thought so and set forth his idea in his short story "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" (Galaxy, December 1962).

The time is the near future when the Cold War is still raging and most of the United States population has withdrawn into that sci-fi cliché, the underground city. Gusterson, an idea man with a rebellious streak, who refuses to move his family from the surface to Cleveland Below, is fed up with the pestering of Fay, a representative of the Micro Systems Company, who wants new ideas for consumer products. After suggesting things like automatic lint collectors, orbiting bubble homes, synthetic beauty masks, and plutonium-eating termites, Gusterson's patience reaches its limit and he suggests the following:
I’ll tell you what you can have that ignorant team of yours invent. They can fix me up a mechanical secretary that I can feed orders into and that’ll remind me when the exact moment comes to listen to TV or phone somebody or mail in a story or write a letter or pick up a magazine or look at an eclipse or a new orbiting station or fetch the kids from school or buy Daisy (Mrs Gusterson. ed.) a bunch of flowers or whatever it is. It’s got to be something that’s always with me, not something I have to go and consult or that I can get sick of and put down somewhere. And it’s got to remind me forcibly enough so that I take notice and don’t just shrug it aside, like I sometimes do even when Daisy reminds me of things. That’s what your stupid team can invent for me! If they do a good job, I’ll pay ’em as much as fifty dollars!
Three weeks later, Fay returns with a prototype of the gadget Gusterson described. It's a bit like a cross between an alarm clock and an audio recorder with a vibrating alarm added for good measure. Worn on the shoulder, it reminds the owner of appointments with prerecorded announcements and a discrete buzz. Gusterson is not happy and wants nothing to do with the "Tickler", as Fay calls it.

Fay returns to the Gustersons periodically and each time he's wearing the latest version of the Tickler–each one larger and more sophisticated than the last. Soon the Tickler is feeding Fay subliminal verbal stimuli to keep him motivated, monitoring body electricity and blood chemistry, and injecting him with drugs. It grows so large (It weighs two stone!) that Fay resembles a hunchback and has to wear special shirts and jackets with holes cut in the shoulder. You'd think this would make Fay a bit conspicuous, but not when everyone else in Cleveland Below is wearing similar.

Then Gusterson gets a good look at the latest model and, to his horror, sees that it has a camera and two tiny mechanical arms, so it looks like a cycloptic robot monkey squatting on Fay's shoulder. The thing is even reading Fay's memos for him and tearing up the ones that it'd rather the man not read.

Then, one day, it starts whispering in Fay's ear
Day by day, in every way, you’re learning to listen … and obey. Day by day—
Excuse me while I dump my phone down the toilet.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Quote of the day

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour those sidelights on the management of a midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping.
Ed Zern, Field and Stream, November 1959

Review: Sh*t My Dad Says

You worry too much. Eat some bacon... What? No, I got no idea if it'll make you feel better, I just made too much bacon.
 Says Dr Sam Halpern, the 21st century's answer to Lazarus Long–except that Dr Halpern has a much more colourful vocabulary (it took me an hour to find a quote that didn't need asterisks) and his philosophy is less cracker barrel and more direct.   At age 28, writer and Dr. Halpren's son, Justin Halpern was forced by circumstances to move back in with his 73-year old father and found himself faced with comments like,
The worst thing you can be is a liar...Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is liar.  Nazi one, liar two.
As a sort of coping mechanism, Justin Halpren started posting his father's aphorisms on his twitter account and before he knew what was happening his followers started numbering in the hundreds, then the thousands, and then the hundreds of thousands.  It became that artefact of the digital age: The Internet sensation and soon Mr Halpren was facing book offers and television deals.

 The result is the book Sh*t My Dad Says, a spot on the New York Times Best Seller's list, and an incarnation on television as $#*! My Dad Says starring William Shatner.  Not bad for a Twitter feed.

Sh*t My Dad Says is a thin volume, which is a plus because it's an extremely funny book and Halpern knows that the joke can only carry for so long before it wears out it's welcome. It's basically the story of the younger Halpern's relationship with his father, who is described as the "least passive-aggressive person on Earth".  In fact he's so blunt and given to, um, creative language that it surprises some people that the elder Halpern is a retired research scientist in nuclear medicine.  At least, it surprises people who haven't met many research scientists.

In between accounts of how the the elder Halpern guides the younger Halpern ("The one Dad yells at") through such things as lying about a science fair project, Little League baseball, and The Talk (at Denny's in full earshot of a table of fratboys), we're treated to more words of wisdom such as,
First things first: A car has five gears.  What's that smell?...Okay, first thing before the first thing: Farting in a car that's not moving makes you an ***hole.
The book is very economically written and Halpern is honest about his (many) shortcomings and his father shines through as a man who cares about his son, but isn't letting that get in the way of getting the last bowl of Grape Nuts.  It's touching in places, hilarious and infinitely quotable in others, and as blue in language as a barber shop parrot, but it achieves something that is a real rarity: A humour book that people will remember a few years down the line.

Book at Bedtime

Friday, 1 October 2010

Quote of the day

Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.
G. K. Chesterton

The importance of routine

Discipline is a great help to the struggling writer.  It can mean the difference between a relatively painless job and a drawn out frustration where your writing becomes a drudgery that never gets started, much less done.  Full-time writers have a hard enough time sitting down at the keyboard.  Since writing is such a cerebral occupation and thinking and research provide so many excuses for distraction, the writer has to work very hard at ignoring temptation and not wasting time.  When the writer works at home and friends, neighbours, and relatives take this as meaning said writer is always available for some little errand.  Get enough of those little errands together and you can lose an entire week.  It's for this reason that the professional writer often acquires the reputation of an anal-retentive curmudgeon who answers the phone with a growl.

It's even worse for the beginning writer because he has to deal not only with all the problems of putting words on paper, but also the responsibility of family, friends, pets, and a paying job.  If he doesn't, then he's in real trouble.  Finding time to write at all can be like jamming a quart into a pint.  You can start the day with the best intentions of writing 1500 words and end up going to bed promising to make it up tomorrow.  Then tomorrow comes and it's the same story.

So, how to prevent this from happening?  The answer is to make your writing a matter of routine.  Set aside a particular place and a particular time every day and reserve it exclusively for writing.  Preferably, this should be at a time when you have the most energy and in a place with the least distractions.  I find the public library at about three o'clock in the afternoon is good, but if circumstances mean it's six AM in a McDonald's or propped in bed with a reading light at 11 PM while the significant other is sleeping, then that works, too.  The important thing is that it is in a time and place that you know you can get to each day.  It doesn't have to be a long time; two hours is great, but fifteen minutes does the job if that's all your day can spare.  You won't get as much done, but you'll get something done.  And look on the bright side; if you can't write all down tonight, you'll have something to start on tomorrow.

It's hard at first.  For the first few weeks it will feel like a miserable chore, but soon this routine will become, well, routine.  Eventually, it will be like running is for fitness nuts; you'll feel uncomfortable if you don't get your daily scribbling in.

That's all well and good, you say, but what if I can't come up with something to write at exactly that time of day?  Maybe I can't get the muse to strike at 8:15 every night.  Think so?  Here's a secret I learned years ago:  Muses are overrated.  True, being struck by inspiration and getting on a role is great.  It's an exhilarating rush like skiing over fine powder combined with the comfort of a cigar that's drawing nicely, but you don't need it in order to write.

I'll say it again.  You. Don't. Need. It.  I learned this when I was writing a comedy about twelve years ago and I was facing all sorts of deadlines.  I was annoyed, I was miserable, I didn't feel at all in a joking mood, yet, to my astonishment, I discovered that I could be funny even when I didn't feel like it.  I could turn the funny on at will.  I could turn out ten pages of farce and wit, then turn to my dog and scream, "What the *&^% are YOU looking at?!?"

If you have something to say, it will come out during your writing time.  You won't be able to stop it.  If you don't, then work on something else.  Blog, journal, compose e-mails, brainstorm, free associate, make outlines of your next book.  It doesn't matter so long as you stick to your routine and keep writing.  You'll get into the groove before you know it.

Final point:  When's the best time to start a routine?  Right now.

What are reading this for?  Get going!