Monday, 31 January 2011

Quote of the day

A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril.
Sir Winston Churchill

To tell the truth

Many stories are told of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s journey to the Frogstar. Ten percent of them are ninety-five percent true, fourteen percent of them are sixty-five percent true, thirty-five percent of them are only five percent true, and all the rest of them are… told by Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Fans are great. They are the bread and butter of writers.  Where you have to sweat bullets trying to convince the casual reader to buy your book or read your story, the fan has already bought the brand and all you have to do is make sure that you don't disappoint him. Fans give the writer an audience that not only show tremendous devotion, but are often extremely knowledgeable about a particular genre and can be fierce critics. 

Unfortunately, they also tend to be very keen readers who like to milk every last drop of pleasure out of the text and this often manifests itself in weaving all sorts of conspiracy theories.  Did so and so really die or was it all a ruse?  Was the subplot all an illusion?  Maybe the waiter was really the detective.  Maybe the ghost of Hamlet's father was really Claudius.

Maybe.

In theatre, there's a thing about a decision by the director or the actors being supported by the text.  No, they characters aren't all librarians putting on a play.  Why? Because the text never mentions such a thing.  Queen Gertrude isn't a nine-foot tall Ubangi with a robot hand.  Why?  Because the text never mentions such a thing.  Hamlet isn't a homicidal maniac.  Why?  Because the text never mentions such a thing.   If you can't demonstrate that the script supports an idea, then leave it out–or hope that the author is safely dead.

The same thing goes for all fiction–at least, in the sense that all fiction follows an unspoken convention.  All fiction operates in a very circumscribed universe.  The number of people that a character interacts with is much smaller than most people do in real life.  Their activities are much simpler.  Time is compressed.  Compare the dialogue in a book against a real life conversation and fictional characters seem to gallop through  every meeting. 

This streamlined version of reality also applies to the truth.  In real life, we often have to operate on a very hazy standard of what constitute the truth and what doesn't.  We don't have time to verify every fact or every motive.  We have to act on insufficient or dubious information as we make provisional conclusions that we hope will be correct.  Did my mechanic tell me the truth about my car?  I hope so?  Did the bank clerk deposit my cash or just trouser it?  I'll have to act like he did.  Did my boss give me the right figures?  I hope so. 

In fiction, we don't have that luxury.  There isn't the time and we don't have the same sort of general knowledge in a piece of fiction that we have in real life.  It just isn't practical.   Instead, we operate on a very simple assumption:  Unless we are given a reason to think otherwise, we must assume that whatever we're told is true.  Is that the ghost of Hamlet's father?  Yes.  Why?  Because we've been told so and we have no reason to believe otherwise.  Blofeld tells us that a bottle contains a deadly poison.  Does it?  Until we learn otherwise, yes.  Now, that doesn't mean that we trust everything that every character says.  If an author tells you a source is unreliable, then it is.  Douglas Adams, for example, makes it clear that only an idiot would take anything Zaphod Beeblebrox says at face value.  We never trust anything about what the Joker says about his past because it's established that he always lies about that and never tells the same story twice running.

What this means is that the author has a gold-plated obligation to be honest with the reader.  Don't assume that a reader will also think that a statement is a lie unless you give him a reason to believe it to be one.  He will assume that it is true.  You, as the writer, set the rules of your world and it is your duty to set the limits in a fair and open manner.  That doesn't mean that every story must be one where all your plot cards are neatly laid out on the table.  You can create a web of lies, a world of mirrors where nothing is what it seems, or a situation that is a series of puzzles within puzzles like a frustrating set of maddening Russian dolls, but in order to do so you must establish that world and convince your reader that no one is to be trusted because the default position is that he should. 

Or am I lying?

Friday, 28 January 2011

Quote of the day

You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.
John Buchan

Villains are people, too

I had a friend who was a promising playwright.  She had a good ear, could set out a serviceable plot, and she always knew how to keep her stories within the limitations of low-budget theatres.  Her problem was that her plays were always extremely lacklustre.  They would just lie there like a mackerel on a fishmonger's bench and had about as much dramatic appeal.

The reason?  It stemmed from her desire to be a playwright of ideas.  She saw theatre as an agent of social change (always a mistake, in my opinion) and wanted to tackle great issues as her characters struggled to find the Truth.  Many of her plots were partly autobiographical, which is actually a very good source for material, and those of us who knew her could see where she was reliving old arguments and she didn't feel she'd won the first time around.  All well and good.  Her problem was that on the one side she had the characters who stood for her point of view and on the other were characters who stood for the other point of view.  Her characters were passionate, polished, and articulate.  The others were thin, cliché-bound, and crude.  The result was that her plays came off as very one sided and were less stories than stacked decks.

The reason is fairly obvious: She didn't try to see her villain's point of view.  To her mind, they were wrong and that was all there was to it.  She had forgotten that from the villain's perspective what he believes is perfectly sound.  It may seem appalling to us, but to him we're the idiots who don't get the point.  True, you may not agree with his politics, his attitude toward women, or his views about eating babies for breakfast, but when were you ever expected to make your villain a respectable citizen?  He's the villain.  He's the one of your major protagonists.  If he doesn't come across as a fully-formed character, you have a straw man–in which case, your story is less believable than a panto.  Indeed, it's often been argued that the villain should not be just as well drawn as your heroes, he should be better drawn.  Villains, after all, get the best lines.  They're the ones who get to say "No, Mr. Bond.  I expect you to die!"

Look at a good villain such as Goldfinger or Mr Gutman from The Maltese Falcon.  They make the novels work.  They carry the plot along.  Goldfinger is resourceful, cunning, extremely organised and believes sincerely that he can and deserves to rob the world blind.  Gutman is dedicated, ruthless, good humoured, sincere, and quick witted.  Of course he deserves to own that fabulous treasure whatever the cost.  They're monsters, but they're interesting monsters.  Or take the example of take the example of General Scott, who arranges a military coup of the United States in Seven Days in May.  He isn't a black-hearted megalomaniac with a lust for power.  He really believes that he's doing what is right to protect his country against a weak president.  It doesn't make him any the less evil, but it does make the cut and thrust of politics and ideas at the centre of the story viable and interesting.

And I'm not just talking about grand villainy here.  If you're writing a kitchen sink drama about a woman who is alienated from her mother, don't just see the tyrannical mother from the sensitive, suffering daughter's point of view.  See the weakling daughter from the self-reliant mother's side.  You don't have to agree with your villains, but it is unavoidable that you must understand them.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Quote of the day

In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair, the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.
Dorothy L. Sayers

Elementary, my dear Watson

"I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson," said he. "When your round is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom."
"Excellent!" I cried. 
"Elementary," said he. "It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction. The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "The Crooked Man" from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
One of the most frustrating problems for a writer is how to portray a character who is smarter or better at something than the writer is.  It's all very well to create a intelligent as Sherlock Homes, as resourceful as James Bond, or as persuasive as Horace Rumpole, but what do you do if you aren't particularly smart, resourceful, or persuasive?  How can you write a dashing ladies man or irresistible siren if you have two left feet with the opposite sex?  How can you write a character who could talk the hind leg off a donkey when you can't even get your kids to eat their peas?

The simple answer is that you don't have to.  The purpose of a writer isn't to be as smart, charming, or glib as his characters.  The purpose is to portray the sense that the characters have these qualities. 

Let's take the example of Sherlock Holmes.  Conan Doyle never pretended that he was the equal in criminal detective work to his creation (though he did solve at least one mystery in real life).  Though he based Holmes on one of his medical  school instructors who could tell the whole history of his patients just by looking at them, Conan Doyle was never himself a master of deductive reasoning.  Indeed, some have even argued that Holmes wasn't either.  It's  common practice for Holmesians to examine Holmes's feats of deduction and pointing out that the great detective often relied on sheer guess work, ignored equally plausible explanations, made unwarranted assumptions, and was often just plain wrong.

Perhaps, but that's irrelevant.  True, things like deducing that a man is poor health because his hat is stained with sweat is pure nonsense, but that's doesn't matter because the point of Holmes's little act was never meant as a serious example of deductive reasoning.  It was a literary device to convince the reader that Holmes is rather clever regardless of whether or not Conan Doyle was.  The purpose was merely to establish the credibility of Holmes's superior abilities.

It's not a hard trick.Mystery writers mastered it over a century ago.  You just start with the conclusion, and work backwards as you invent the clues leading up to it.  Since you are essentially stacking the deck, so long as you keep your facts straight and your logic sound, you can seem like a master detective--or con man or barrister or wine expert or whatever.  The wine expert is another good example.  One way to create such a character is to become a wine expert.  Another is to acquire a very general knowledge and spice it up with one or two fascinating little tidbits of wine trivia that make it seem as if you can tell what side of the vineyard the grapes came from just by sniffing the cork.

Glossing is another dodge.  In this, you pay a great deal of a attention to setting up the problem, and great deal to how it played out, but only allude to the bit in between when someone actually had to do something.  Don't have the first idea of how to chat up someone in a bar?  Then don't try to depict it.  Concentrate on what happened before, what happened after, and dance over the middle in such a way that you let the reader fill in the gaps.

One way that is often seen in fantasy (though not restricted to it by any means)  is letting some other ability stand in for the one you can't portray.  Supermen are by their very nature impossible to portray with any verisimilitude.  A superior being whether saint or mutant is by their very nature going to be impossible for a lesser creature to imagine.  The answer is to let some trait stand in for their abilities.  That's why supermen in science fiction are often telepathic or incredibly strong and saints in fiction have a cloying kindness and sentimentality that never track with what one reads about the lives of real one.  It's a substitute for what the author can't depict.   The same trick is also used to depict some moral defect that a character may have that the author has trouble bringing out.  It isn't just for show that Dr.No has iron claws instead of hands.

It's elementary.

    Tuesday, 25 January 2011

    Monday, 24 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.
    Robert A. Heinlein

    Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein (1966)
    Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the galaxy and it is in order that this situation should not be in any way exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advanced: The planet in question, is, in fact, Magrathea. The deadly nuclear missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defence system will merely result in the bruising of somebody’s upper arm, and the untimely creation and sudden demise of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale. In order that some sense of mystery should still be preserved no revelation will yet be made concerning whose upper arm has been bruised. This fact may safely be made the subject of suspense since it is of no significance whatsoever.
    Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


    Oddly enough, this quote from Douglas Adams is probably the best way of summing up Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I've often seen this 1966 novel referred to as Heinlein's best–an assessment that I can't agree with.  in fact, I regard it as one of his poorer efforts and one that certainly doesn't stand up to his earlier works.  I would even go so far as to say that it is only Heinlein's powers as a story teller that makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress barely readable.

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress isn't so much a novel as a political tract that Heinlein should have called "How I Would Run a Revolution" or rather, "How I Daydream I Would Run a Revolution".  Set in the year 2076, the Moon has been turned into a penal colony tasked with providing grain for Earth's starving billions.  The colonists are convicts, political prisoners, and their descendants who are trapped on the Moon due to living in low gravity making a return to Earth fatal.  The Earth Authority is oppressive and the colonists decide to revolt.  They work out a plan to make the Moon into an independent state, they implement their plan, it all goes off without a hitch, the end.

    That is the entire plot.  Dramatically, it's as dead as dishwater with absolutely no twists or surprises.  For the first hundred or so pages we are locked in a hotel room with three of Heinlein's stock characters*,  the Heinlein Individual, the Old Man, and the vaguely sketched female who loves being pregnant.  All of them are, of course, Competent and all of them are mouthpieces for Heinlein as he ideally sees himself.  It doesn't help that our narrator is an utter cipher who speaks a "Loonie" jargon that comes across as a bad Russian dialect bit.  This is not only distracting, but it's pointless, inconsistent, irrelevant, does not conform to Russian grammar, distracts from the narrative, no one else talks that way, and it is made clear that it's an affectation that he an drop whenever he chooses.

    Back at the hotel, there is an interminable conversation that goes on for so long that we also have to sit through three meals as they hammer out their plan for revolution.  Oh, and it doesn't hurt that they are best friends with a self-aware supercomputer that controls everything in the colony and is nearly omnipotent.  Of course, no one else knows about.  No, no one else ever does, the computer doesn't turn on them, and it isn't incapacitated unexpectedly.

    Then they go from strength to strength, winning every battle whether military, economic or political, yet the computer keeps claiming that the odds against them are getting worse and worse.  Apparently projections aren't its metier.  Their victories aren't even surprising because The Moon is a Harsh Mistress exhibits one of Heinlein's great failings as an author; his utter disinterest in and inability to portray evil.  In Heinlein's universe, evil is synonymous with stupidity.  Far from getting the best lines, Heinlein's villains aren't even allowed on stage.  Worse, they are utterly incompetent.  The supposedly oppressed colony is a no-go area for the prison guards who literally cannot set foot in the place without being torn limb from limb by the unarmed inmates.  They never even suspect what is going on even after it is too late and they never show a spark of initiative or intelligence.  Winning a war against morons is hardly the stuff of epic heroism nor is a stacked deck the way to hold the reader's attention.

    Of course, the heroes are always in a state of unanimity.  There are no rivals to them and the only opposition within the ranks are from straw men who pop up out of nowhere only to be slapped down and vanish to whence they came.  This must be the tidiest revolution in history.

    The novel is also maddeningly flat.  Aside from the stock Heinlein characters, the others are mere props and sketches.  None grow, develop, or earn our emotional attachment, so we never give a toss about them.  Worse, one may be introduced as, for example, a colourful French Royalist, but soon recedes into the background as "Stu" and ends up sounding like everyone else.  There's also no sense of place or atmosphere.  Is the colony spacious or cramped?  Is it antiseptically neat or like living in an open sewer?  Is it lively?  Bleak?  Cheerful?  Ominous?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The only real thing we learn about the Moon is that, due to a shortage of women, the colonists have taken to polygamous/polyandrous marriages like a duck to water.  And, like the revolution, they all work out just fine without any problems.  This part of the book is annoying because a) it displays Heinlein's juvenile and usually unsuccessful desire to shock, b) it has nothing to do with the plot yet c) Heinlein keeps banging on about it and d) it never occurs to him that the shortage might have been addressed in more traditional ways, such as the women taking up with whatever men have the most money or status and the rest lose out. 

    As to the colony inhabitants, Heinlein's attitude toward them is as contradictory and condescending as, in real life, was his attitude toward mankind in general.  On the one hand, the "Loonies" are all rugged individualists full of all the American virtues and none of their faults, but on the other they're a load of idiot children who must be pressured, duped, conned, cajoled, patronised, and generally blindly  lead by a secret elite "for their own good".  Oh, and they're also multi-ethnic and have mixed together like they've had a spin in a blender.  Apparently on the Moon it isn't possible for one group to dominate the rest or to divide along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, nationality, or other fault lines.  But then, once you get beyond the stratosphere human nature is suspended, I presume.

    Science fiction regards itself as a literature of ideas.  This is certainly the case as a story constructed like a heap of driftwood can still be regarded as a classic if it has an "idea" and this I suspect is why The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has remained so popular. It certainly has "ideas".  As Painshin noted, this is not so much a novel as a dramatised lecture.  The entire purpose of the book is to put forward Heinlein's vision of a perfect Libertarian society where people get along quite happily without the accouterments of government–that includes contracts, courts, law, schools, police, and anything else.  Apparently all of this is provided by either street vendors acting as jurists or justice being a matter taken care of by a victim's family and friends. How this devil-take-the-hindmost society works without the friendless becoming easy prey, families descending into corrupt criminal enterprises, disputes becoming blood feuds, or power gravitating into the hands of the better organised isn't Heinlein's problem.  It's all, in Heinlein's words, a matter of TANSTAAFL (There Ain't (sic) No Such Thing As A Free Lunch).  Lord protect us from self-styled cracker barrel philosophers. 

    My problem is (again) that none of this has anything to do with the plot.  There's no dispute over Heinlein's Über-Libertarianism in the story, it poses no dilemma, solves none either, and is just so much Utopian pontification.  Ideally, science fiction poses a "what if?" and then explores the dramatic possibilities. What if there were immortality?  What if a man was invisible?  What if the sun went out?  You take any of these and then work out what the logical consequences are and how these can be made into a story. Heinlein uses "What if?" and exploits it as a platform for presenting his political tract.  This is the the literature of lazy day dreaming.  Ideas are meaningless if they don't play out in a plausible way, which Heinlein rejected the moment he introduced a computer as a ludicrous deus ex machina on the first page. How this won a Hugo award is incomprehensible.

    I was going to end by saying that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress gave me a headache. It did; thirty six years ago.  Re-reading it just freshened it up a bit.

    *Now there's a nightmare situation that would make a good story.

    Friday, 21 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    I don't start writing a script until I can see it all in my head, then it's a matter of getting it down in white heat.
    J. Michael Straczynski

    Poems

    Thursday, 20 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you'll see why.
    Mignon McLaughlin

    New Rules

    Though she doesn't intend to, Ms Anis Shivani provides a long list of things that you should NOT do to become a successful writer.  Here's a taste:
    You're supposed to have a keen, appreciative, well-trained, affectionate, loyal audience--one that "gets" you, gets what you're all about, your aims and ambitions, your motivation and biography, how you fit into the circle, what chair belongs to you and at exactly how many minutes past ten it'll be your turn to speak at the table. Every audience ever known to man is stupid. It's stupid because it takes itself seriously. No great writer ever wrote for the audience at hand. And if you can't know your audience when you create, that's almost the same as saying that there is no audience at all. Is the audience your inner critic? You should have silenced that voice before you ever started writing. Criticism is for others, not for your own work. Your own work flows from passion and madness, not theories of completion and harmony and perfection. Is the audience a super-intelligent one, as well-read as you, as biographically diverse and adventurous as you, as restless for newness and experiment and reality as you? You should have killed that audience before you started writing, because why write for someone just like you? Where's the excitement in that? 
    The short version of her advice:  To Hell with publishers, editors, critics, readers, making money, and critical thinking.  It's all about passion, dammit!

    That's the sort of thing that has you ending up sitting in a corner of the Paddington public library fingering the tattered, grease-stained manuscript of your Magnum Opus while spraying beer-soaked words into the ear of whatever poor bastard you manage to buttonhole.

    I should know.  I was the poor bastard.

    Wednesday, 19 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    It's a poor sort of memory that only works backward.
    Lewis Carroll

    Postmodern Generator

    With the Postmodernism Generator you can produce a complete work of "scholarship" with the click of a mouse.  Imagine submitting gems like this:
    In the works of Pynchon, a predominant concept is the concept of structuralist consciousness. But Bataille uses the term ‘postcultural narrative’ to denote the common ground between sexual identity and society. The primary theme of the works of Pynchon is the role of the reader as participant.

    It could be said that the example of socialist realism prevalent in Pynchon’s Vineland is also evident in Gravity’s Rainbow. The subject is contextualised into a postcultural narrative that includes narrativity as a totality.
    Thus, Lyotard uses the term ‘textual precultural theory’ to denote the difference between class and truth. The subject is interpolated into a postcultural narrative that includes sexuality as a paradox
    Not good enough?  Then just refresh the page and behold a brand new bit of brilliance appears as if by magic.  Spouting opaque nonsense has never been easier.

    Monday, 17 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
    Oscar Wilde

    Editors


    Friday, 14 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.
    Peter Ustinov

    Writing a sales letter

    Sales letters can be either very easy or very hard to write.  For me, it depends on who I'm writing them for.  If it's for a client, it's ridiculously easy.  I talk over the letter with my client, determine what his message is, note any slogans or tag lines to include, learn the "voice" the client uses or create one, gather the relevant facts and talking points, and then stare at my blank computer screen with a look of panic and pure hatred for six hours while I wait for it all to gel somewhere inside my cerebral cortex.  Then inspiration hits (Or I see the clock; the effect is much the same) and I'm on a roll.  Out come the words and in a few hours I have a rough draught that I then let sit overnight before revising in the morning.  However, when I'm writing sales letters for my own company, the process evokes images of Humphrey Bogart hauling the African Queen through leech-infested swamps.  I don't know if that's because I have a personal stake in what I'm saying or because writing for myself sends my internal editor into overdrive, but it becomes a week-long slogging match where every word comes with the ease of trying to pass a kidney stone.

    The upside of this is that it sends me back to the books to review how to write a sales letter in hopes of finding inspiration or a new angle.  This not only has the effect of forcing open the creative blockage, but it also gives me more ammunition that I can use in the service of my clients for their sales letters.

    Sales letters are the most intimate form of advertising we've come up with so far.  Adverts are usually intended either for a mass audience or to target a specific demographic group.  That's true if you're talking about a television commercial or a magazine advert or a web banner.   In each of these cases, the advertiser is trying to appeal to a group of people.  With a sales letter, the advertiser is appealing to just one person.  That's why a sales letter is the only advert that starts with "dear".  Because of this intimacy, sales letters require a lot of attention to detail and should be designed so that they can be tailored to the person that they are addressed to.

    The function of a sales letter can be summed up in the acronym AIDA.  What you want your ales letter to due is to draw the reader's Attention,  Spark his Interest,  create a Desire, and persuade him to take Action–in this case, to contact you about your product or service. Put in simple terms, what you want to do is to get the person to read the letter, show him that what you have to offer is relevant to his needs, pose a problem that that what you present solves, and agitate that problem until the person is convinced that the best way out is to contact you.  The goal is to create a vivid image of what will happen if he doesn't contact you, how awful their present situation is, and how you can provide the solution.  This isn't badgering or hard selling.  It's not (necessarily) saying that if they don't buy your product, their house will burn down.  It can something as everyday as persuading someone that if they don't book their flight through your website, they won't have as much fun on their holiday than if they did. 

    Because of the steps that a sales letter must take, their format is fairly standard.  What sets them apart is their execution.  A basic sales letter generally includes the following:
    • A  headline.
      • This is a bold statement  that grabs the readers attention.  A few years ago, this was regarded as optional, but because modern attention spans are so brief, the headline is vital during the three seconds expected to get the get the recipient to read the letter rather than bin it.
    • A salutation 
      •  This is the traditional Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms plus the person's surname.  If at all possible, address the letter to person–especially if your trying to get business from the decision maker at a company.  In a pinch,  Dear Sir or Madam. may be used.
    • A statement of your credentials.  
      • It's extremely important to show why you, your company, or your client is the one to go to for this good or service instead of some competitor.  The purpose here is to lay the essential groundwork by instilling confidence in the recipient.
    • A how and why statement.  
      • This is the meat of the letter where you put your case forward and tell the recipient what is missing from his life, how dreadful his situation is without it, and how you'll fulfill that need. 
    • A call to action
      • Tell the recipient how to make it all happen.  Pick up the phone, fill out the form, visit the website; whatever is needed to get the ball rolling.
    • The sign-off
      •  Wrap it all up, thank the recipient for his time, and close the letter.
    • The P.S.
      • Many people think this is optional and even counterproductive if the recipient is a senior officer in a company,  But the P.S. is the one part of the letter that is certain to be read.
    But what should you say in the letter itself? Here we get into marketing itself and that is a whole new subject.  What you say depends on your product, your service, your client, your recipient, and your message.  You can use all the techniques of marketing from offering some premium to working with basic needs, to forming a new need, but the one thing to remember is that this is a very personal appeal.  You aren't persuading a million people or a thousand, or even ten.  You're trying to persuade one person, so you must remember to address that person's needs, concerns, desires, hang ups, and quirks.  If you manage that, then you're halfway home.

    One final point: length.  How long should the letter be? Should it be long and detailed or short and sweet?  The answer is, to make it interesting and informative.  If you manage that, then the length is irrelevant.  People will sit and happily read a multi-page letter if they find it engaging, but they won't waste a second on one that's short and boring.  The trick is to engage their attention and then reward them for their time.

    Thursday, 13 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
    Ernest Hemingway

    Are you ready to publish your novel?

    Wednesday, 12 January 2011

    Tuesday, 11 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    Charm is the quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves.
    Henri-Frédéric Amiel

    True Wit

    Monday, 10 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    I always find it more difficult to say the things I mean than the things I don't.
    W. Somerset Maugham

    Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

    (From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor by Jerry Della Femina, edited by Charles Sopkin 1970, republished with new introduction by author 2010)

    Mad Men is one of the best programmes on television today.  Given the competition, that isn't very high praise.  The production values of the show are meticulous, the acting is first rate, and the direction tolerably restrained.  Where it falls down, as in most cases today is in the writing.  It's not bad, but it isn't good.  As character studies, the episodes work vary well.  It's pity that they are nearly devoid of plot because I often end up   watching the credits and wondering what the point of any of that was.  However, one of the lucky by products of the show's success is a renewed interest in the 1960s that doesn't revolve around the vastly over-represented Counter Culture and the rediscovery of books like From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

    It's interesting that this is marketed as "One of the key texts for Mad Men", given that the series is set in the early '60s and Della Femina's book was published in 1970.  Having started in the New York advertising industry at the age of 16, he has a lot of anecdotes and information about the people and the nature of the top tier of advertising in the mid 20th century.  At the time, it seemed tremendously shocking with his stories of frustrated ad men trying to throw their desks out of windows, others who stabbed their telephones to death, and working practices that had a weird mix of straitlaced and chaotic like dressing a chimpanzee in a  grey flannel suit.  The current edition is even more shocking as in the new introduction he recounts the sexual Olympics at his firm that the publisher (and his colleagues) clearly wouldn't let him allude to at the time.  One wonders what else was left out if that sordid little gem was passed over.

    From Those Woderful Folk isn't a very straight forward book.  It's more a string of anecdotes and observations grouped around various topics such as how agencies sell themselves to clients, how newer (from the '6os perspective) firms compare to the older, more (for want of a better word) conservative ones, and just how insane the creative departments can be.  Added to this is the recurrent theme of how advertising at that time was undergoing a massive sea change as it went from a text and art format that depended heavily on argument as well as persuasion to one of photography and simple slogans (if even that) intended to persuade though evoking an emotional response.  Despite an over forty year gap since publication, From Those Woderful Folk has aged well and is an excellent introduction to the time when Madison Avenue was so much a part of popular culture and not just the backdrop for a prime time soap opera.

    If it serves no other purpose, From Those Woderful Folk dispels any illusion that the Mad Men were any more mainstream to American society than the Counter Culture horrors that supplanted them.

    Friday, 7 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
    Douglas Adams

    The deadline cometh

    I have a deadline looming,  Back Monday

    Thursday, 6 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    The best way to compile inaccurate information that no one wants is to make it up.
    Scott Adams

    Commas

    Wednesday, 5 January 2011

    Tuesday, 4 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.
    Oscar Wilde

    Review: Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise And Fall Of Detroit's Coolest Creation

    Mad Men meet turbines.

    Jet turbines have always been the automotive future that never arrived.  Since the 1940s, companies such as Rover, British Leyland, Ford, and GM tried to develop a practical substitute to the piston engine.  It seemed like such a logical progression.  Turbines could burn almost any fuel, they had power comparable to a piston engine, had far fewer parts, and didn't need all the auxiliary bits and pieces that traditional car engines required.  Some saw turbines as a simple substitute for motor car engines.  Others as a alternative to lorry diesel engines.  and GM regarded it as the showpiece of its dream of hurling the motorist into the 21st century without an airbag. 

    But it was Chrysler that went the furthest of any of them.  The smallest of the American Big Three auto makers, Chrysler sunk $50 million into developing not just a new jet power plant for motor cars, but they developed a new middle-class, middle-American saloon car to put it in.  As recounted by Steve Lehto in his book Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation , Chrysler made great strides in reducing the size while increasing the reliability of jet turbines.  They then married these to a fleet of  handmade Italian chassis, and then handed out fifty of them to ordinary Americans to evaluate by driving them around in their daily lives.

    Lehto does an excellent job of conveying the excitement of the Chrysler experiment while never overwhelming the reader with what could have been rafts of details about metallurgy and power curves.  He keeps it simple and he keeps it light.  He also shows how it was as much a matter of publicity as engineering.  He discusses how head of the turbine project George Huebner was often more showman than manager as he fought to keep both the Chrysler management and the American public interested in the turbine car.  Even the test car, known only as the Turbine, was a cunning double switch as what was promoted as a field evaluation turned into free publicity as the characteristic whine of the turbine melded with the striking Italian styling and bronze paintwork to turn the Turbine into a creature sure to capture attention and literally stop traffic.  Mixed in with this, we are also introduced to the extraordinary men behind the Turbine, such as Turbine expert Sam Williams, who went on to found Williams International and metallurgical genius Dr. Amdee Roy. 

    The only problem with Chrysler's Turbine Car is that there isn't a drop of suspense to it.  The story is actually very straightforward:  Chrysler develops a superior car, but they can't figure out a way to mass produce it.  They spend years and millions trying to lick the problem, but in the 1970s the US government slaps Chrysler with new fuel efficiency and environmental regulations that were so strict and with such short deadlines that Chrysler almost goes bankrupt.  In that climate, the turbine car is too expensive to develop and is dropped without much ceremony.  The fleet of turbine cars are too expensive to store and too exotic to sell without them becoming broken down heaps of rusting public relations disasters, so all but a handful are scrapped.  Today, only a couple are in running order.  Lehto tries to spin this out with a lot of foreshadowing and might-have-been speculation, but in the end it is the bittersweet story of a remarkable technological achievement that was either before its time or a simple dead end.

    Monday, 3 January 2011

    Quote of the day

    A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.
    Victor Hugo

    The perils of dictation



    Last week, we looked at voice-recognition software as a way of taking dictation. Today, we look at the perils of old-fashioned dictation methods.