Attempting to Read the Maltese Falcon

Dashiell Hammett, Kindle Paperwhite, Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, Uncategorized
I’m in the middle of reading The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Well actually, according to my newly-acquired Kindle Paperwhite, I’m 19% through reading it. I happen to be a desperately slow reader compared to many of the people that I know, so this time next week I may have plowed through another few virtual pages and, who knows, may be proudly boasting a massive 20%. In any case, it’s a fairly absorbing story featuring the private detective Sam Spade. So far, there have been two murders, both of which take place off-scene, as it were. I was expecting some graphic description of the shootings to back up Hammett’s reputation of being the progenitor of the hard-boiled detective story. So the fact that you only hear about them when Spade is called in the middle of the night by a police detective, was rather disappointing. Not so much hard boiled as over easy.
I suppose most writers have their blind spots, aspects of writing that they’re just not very good at and Hammett doesn’t disappoint. His lack of expertise lies in the area of description. Here’s an example right from the beginning of chapter 1:
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples— in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”
Yes, I’m sure the effect Hammett is trying to create was that of a blond satan, but he ends up describing what appears to be some sort of aardvark.
The next chapter gives us further intriguing description of Spade to work with:
“The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.”
A shaved bear? You don’t see many of those nowadays do you. But, oh well, I can just about imagine that. But the fact that his skin is childishly soft and pink makes me think, not of some ravening beast of the forest roaring in the night, but of a jelly donut.
Hammett also has difficult in describing people’s facial expressions. Here’s an quick gist from later on in the book:
“Spade stopped her with a palm-up motion of one hand. The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.”
Quite a trick to pull off. I’ve seen many constipation sufferers with much the same expression.
Then there are the curious animal noises that Spade makes:
“He made a growling animal noise in his throat and went to the table for his hat. “You won’t,” she begged in a small choked voice, not looking up, “go to the police?” “Go to them!” he exclaimed, his voice loud with rage. […] Spade made the growling animal noise in his throat again and sat down on the settee. “How much money have you got?” he asked.
I’m not sure what kind of noise this growling thing is. Do bears make them in weak protest at having to be shaved just for the delectation of the reading public? Also, Hammett has to tell us that “He made a growling animal noise in his throat.” Where else, I wonder can you make growling animal noises from? Who knows? Perhaps that’s one of Spade’s party tricks, making animal noises from different parts of his anatomy.
All these little idiosyncrasies so far haven’t put me off finishing the book. In fact they perform the function of an entertaining sideshow to the main plot, which, so far is taking its own sweet time about unraveling. After all, if the book’s called The Maltese Falcon, you might expect that after nearly 20% of the book the actual falcon would have turned up by now. Am I too impatient? Probably. But remember that I read about as slowly as a shortsighted kindergartener in the dark.
Never mind. I shall take a deep breath, shrug my big, rounded, bearlike shoulders, making disconsolate animal growling noises in my throat, and soldier on.


Grisham’s Daily Grind

A Time to Kill, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, lawyer, Mississippi, Mississippi State University, outlining, Tom Clancy, Uncategorized
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
John Ray Grisham, Jr. (born February 8, 1955) is an American bestselling writer, attorney, politician, and activist best known for his popular legal thrillers. His books have been translated into 42 languages and published worldwide.
John Grisham graduated from Mississippi State University before attending the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1981. He practiced criminal law for about a decade and served in the House of Representatives in Mississippi from January 1984 to September 1990. He began writing his first novel, A Time to Kill, in 1984; it was published in June 1989.
As of 2012, his books had sold over 275 million copies worldwide. A Galaxy British Book Awards winner, Grisham is one of only three authors to sell two million copies on a first printing; the others are Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling.
As a kid he never thought about being a writer or even a lawyer. His family moved around a lot when and in every town they went to the big question was how many books can you take out the library: “backward” towns would allow two, “progressive” towns would allow six or seven. He read a lot and mother would always read to them. When he was eleven years old he discovered Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Huckleberry Finn and the Hardy Boys. He was a big reader until law school killed the pleasure because there was no time to read.
When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important.
“The alarm clock would go off at 5 a.m., and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.”
His goal was to write a page every day. Sometimes that would take ten minutes, sometimes an hour; ofttimes he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, which he never especially enjoyed. In the Mississippi Legislature, there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write.
“So I was very disciplined about it,” he says, then quickly concedes he doesn’t have such discipline now: “I don’t have to.”
Nowadays, Grisham writes in an old building, five minutes from his home. There is no fax, no internet, and no noise. He turns up there every day arriving at between 6.30 and 7.00., uses same cup for his coffee and everything very structured. He spends four to five hours writing after which he needs a break because, as he puts it, his brain is fried. He still has a very rigid schedule but he enjoys it and finds it fun to do. He has very few interruptions and the room he writes in is very quiet and very dark – he even covers the windows to make it even darker. He uses an old word-processor he has used for 14 years, which, he says, is about to give up the ghost.
He is an outliner. Typically, he starts with one idea for a story and then outlines it into forty or so chapters before turning it in to his publisher for review. Then the rest of the story is fleshed out in subsequent sessions.
Grisham’s regime may seem brutal, but I suppose it’s a test of a writer’s ambition whether he or she puts in the hours. His books sales are testimony to the fact that hard work is one of the main factors in whether or not you succeed.


What Use Is Poetry?

Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, English teachers, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Uncategorized, William Carlos Williams
There are a surprising number of people who are still interested in poetry of one kind or another. Many people remember poems they studied in school. Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, and Dylan Thomas are some of the poets generally studied in high school, and many, if they had a good English teacher, will remember the impact that their poems had on them.
But what role can poetry play in life? That’s a tricky question. Can we survive without ever hearing another word of poetry? Certainly. Does poetry have anything like a practical use? Well, not really. But couldn’t you say the same about music, art and literature? Yet, most people would protest if they were told they had to give them up completely. Why? Because they recognize that, despite their apparent uselessness, they are life-enhancing. They help us to make sense of the world we live in, they provide an escape from stress and pressure, and they give us pleasure on an esthetic level. It is a fact that our emotional and psychological state can, and often does, affect our actions, and to that extent the arts do have a practical application.
Good poetry can move the heart, raise the mind to a higher level, comfort the bereaved, console the dejected, strengthen the weak-willed, lighten the spirit, and even galvanize the body into action. Although it does not necessarily have a direct utilitarian purpose, poetry can still have a sizable impact indirectly.
So why don’t more people read poetry? One probable reason is that good poetry often requires work. To understand what a poem is trying to say may involve the reader in cerebral activity and perhaps some people are put off by that. In some cases, it is a legitimate criticism of poetry that it is too opaque for the man in the street to derive much benefit from reading it. There is nothing wrong with poetry needing to be worked at, but if no amount of work yields a payload of comprehension then is it worth it? Is it good poetry to begin with, if nobody but an inner circle of cognoscenti are in the know?
The appreciation of poetry also seems to be a seasonal thing. We turn to poetry at certain points in life, certain times of the year, or when hit by some emotion. Some of us even feel the need to writepoetry during those times. There is something that poetry can give that other forms of art or literature cannot. We feel, when we read good poetry, an affinity with the poet’s sentiments, pleasure at a deft turn of phrase, a sense of satisfaction at a brilliant simile or metaphor. And there is the same pleasure in writing poetry, regardless of whether it turns out to be any good or not.





So in answer to the question, what use is poetry? we can say that it’s uses are subtle, multifaceted, sometimes elliptical and usually indirect. If we did away with poetry, humanity would be all the weaker for it. If there were no more poetry, something irreplaceable would have been lost and the common mind of mankind would suffer as a result. Poetry does have a use, but in a sense we could only detect it by its absence.

Lewis’s Daily Grind

Anatomy of Melancholy, Bookham, Boswell, C.S. Lewis, Elia, Herodotus, Jack, Kirkpatrick, Lang, Tristram Shandy, Uncategorized
Clive Staples Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963), or Jack as he was known to his friends, was a British novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, and Christian apologist. He probably needs little introduction because almost everyone in the western world is familiar with his Chronicles of Narnia books for children. But in essence he was an academic, first at Oxford, then later at Cambridge. Late in life, 1956 to be exact, he married the American writer Joy Davidman, who died of cancer four years later. He tells of his romance with her, among other things, in his book coincidentally entitled “Surprised by Joy.” In that same book he describes his ideal daily routine, mirrored on his routine in the house of his erstwhile tutor William T. Kirkpatrick where his father sent him for schooling in 1914. Here’s what he says about it:
“For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one (such as I found, during the holidays, in Arthur) who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it at Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs. Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang’s History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and the Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose. At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.”
In reality he worked incredibly hard giving lectures, grading papers, taking tutorials, writing books –whether academic works, theological books, or novels for adults or children, and giving extra-mural talks at Christian gatherings. How he had time to sit down with the Inklings, drink beer, smoke and discuss various creative writing projects that the group presented is anyone’s guess; but he did. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but this particular Jack was anything but dull.


Zadie Smith’s 10 Good Writing Habits

North London, Uncategorized, Whitbread First Novel Award, White Teeth, writer's lifestyle, Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is a novelist who was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother. She read English at Cambridge, graduating in 1997. Her first novel, White Teeth, received great attention from the media because she accepted a six-figure advance (for both her first novel and a second as-yet-unwritten book) from a publisher before she had even finished writing the book. The book went on to win a number of literary prizes, including the Whitbread First Novel Award. Here is her top-ten pieces of advice for writers.
1.     When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
This piece of advice seems to be more aimed at parents rather than children. It would be unlikely that a child would think to look over Zadie’s advice and then systematically apply it to their own life. Nevertheless, it is a great piece of advice and one that is pretty hard to implement given the amount of “screen time” children usually have, whether it be the Internet, the TV or video games.
2.     When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
I think this is only achievable if you allow a decent lapse of time between the writing and the reading, say, six months (see point 5 below). If you try to read your own writing objectively while it is still fresh in your mind you will have limited success – at least, that’s been my experience. An even better and more efficient piece of advice is “find someone who can read your work objectively.” That way you don’t have to sit around for six months twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the memory of your novel to fade into oblivion before tackling the editing part of the process.
3.     Don’t romanticize your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.” All that matters is what you leave on the page.
This is true. It used to be that there was a “writer’s lifestyle.” A hundred years ago and even fifty years ago there were far more writers who were able to survive on the income from royalties on their books. Nowadays, with so much free material available and the amount of time people spend on reading having fallen to record levels, writers struggle to make ends meet and can’t afford a “lifestyle.” But whether or not you get rich from writing, writers, I believe, do have a responsibility to produce good work.
4.     Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
This requires a degree of self-knowledge and honesty that most people, I guess, do not possess. To admit, for example, that you are no good at writing dialogue, or that descriptive passages are beyond your skill takes a certain amount of courage. On the other hand, if these are areas of weakness for you, then surely you can learn how to tackle them effectively rather than simply avoiding them. If you can’t, then should you be writing at all?
5.     Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
This can be frustrating. When you’ve written something, you want to see it in print as quickly as possible. Leaving well alone for months on end is difficult. I mean, what are you supposed to do while you’re waiting? Start another writing project, of course. I’ve usually found that when I return to a piece of writing after time away from it, I certainly notice gaffs that I hadn’t noticed before, including, strangely enough, typos.
6.     Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
Avoiding cliques, gangs and groups seems like good advice for anybody, not just writers. On the other hand, writing being a solitary occupation, isn’t it healthy to interact with other humans from time to time? I suppose it comes down to “don’t just talk about writing with other people, write instead.”
7.     Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet.
I would agree with this, except in the circumstance where you have to quickly research something in order to continue a plot point or fill out a character. Then the Internet can be of immense value. On the other hand, it is dreadfully easy to get absorbed in research and forget to actually write about what you have researched.
8.     Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
This is tantamount to saying: treat writing like you treat your job. After all, you wouldn’t expect family members and friends just to drop by your office, unannounced, and expect you to make time for them whenever they feel the need. A more tactful way of carving out time for writing would be to get the consent of your family and friends to keep your writing time uninterrupted. That makes it easier to reserve the time.
9.     Don’t confuse honors with achievement.
Would that we had some honors to confuse!
10.  Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
I’d say, this also includes “don’t just write what you think would be commercially successful”; and “write well, no matter what you are writing.” I am not quite sure what she means about resigning yourself to sadness – unless she is referring to the fact that, if we are honest, we know that our writing can always improve and therefore we can never rest on our laurels.


Marketing “How to Write a Poem.”

CreateSpace, How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide, marketing, Michigan, Uncategorized, Wikipedia
Towards the end of last year a friend of mine gave me a rather cool suggestion. I’d been telling him about how sales of my book “How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide” seemed to be healthy and he suggested that I send a free copy to professors who run creative writing courses asking them to recommend the book to their students. I thought it sounded like a pretty good idea so I went ahead and implemented it. Here’s what I did.
I went onto the Wikipedia website and looked up “List of colleges and universities in Michigan” (mainly because Michigan is where I live). What was displayed was a table showing the school, the location, the type of college, how many students each college had and so on. I clicked on the “enrollment” heading and that sorted the table with colleges with the highest attendance at the top. So I made a note of the top ten colleges whose student numbers ranged from about 47k to about 23k.
I then consulted the website of each institution and found the creative writing program page. After a rather lengthy search I came up with the names of the people who ran the programs in the various colleges, and after an even longer search located their contact details.
Next, I ordered 10 copies of the book from the CreateSpace website. CreateSpace is the company I use for publishing paperbacks of my books and copies can be ordered for a fraction of the retail price (if you are the author). The books duly arrived and I set about composing a letter to the various professors I had targeted. I then ordered a box of padded envelopes from with which to mail the books. I packaged up the ten books, along with the letters and took them to the local post office. The postage on each package, if I recall, was about a dollar fifty. The total cost of ordering the books and envelopes and paying for the postage turned out to be roughly $50, i.e. $5 per book.
A few weeks later I sent a follow up email asking if they had had a chance to look at the book and whether it might be useful for their students. I got one reply, from a professor from Oakland Community College who was complimentary about the book but stated that they used another title that covered poetry, fiction and playwriting.
The dearth of feedback did not deter me. In fact, sales went up about 25% from that point on. There is no way of telling if the sales boost was as a result of my marketing pitch or some other cause. The fact is, running relatively cheap marketing campaigns like this can’t hurt and there is always the chance of getting some sales out of them. There are other opportunities; after all I only chose the top ten colleges in one state. There are another 49 states out there who have yet to encounter the beauty and erudition of my book 🙂, and for each of those states there are many colleges who might benefit and therefore many more students who are potential purchasers. That’s tens of thousands of prospective customers. And that’s only one book. And only one country.
I have another book in the pipeline that could be even more relevant for students – and not just students of creative writing, but that can wait for another post….


Plato on Writing

blockbuster novel, description, dialogue, FaceTime, Homer, Iliad, narrative poetry, Odyssey, Phaedrus, Plato, reality, Skype, Socrates, Uncategorized
Plato, in quoting Socrates in his work “Phaedrus,” says that the skill of writing is inadequate to represent reality. His reason is that writing is, unfortunately, like painting in that it can only convey a very limited impression of an object, person or event. The most writing can do is to help the reader to reminisce about a subject, in which case it provides perhaps a better impression in the mind of the reader, but it still imperfectly represents reality.
This seems to me to beg the question. Is writing trying to represent reality? I would suggest that it is not. Take dialogue, for example. Everyone knows that the dialogue in a novel is not trying to represent reality. In reality people talk in unfinished sentences, hesitate, repeat themselves, stammer, punctuate their speech with “um,” “er,” and the like and are generally much less organized in their thought patterns than you would find in the pages of a book.
To the same extent, writing can do more than help a reader to “reminisce” about a subject. What about subjects that the reader has never experienced? Novels quite often do this, especially, say, when talking about a foreign place that a character visits. A well-written piece of description will allow the reader to receive a taste of at least some of what they have never personally experienced before.
On the other hand, it is true that there is only so much you can get across using the written word. Even using photographs or video is inadequate to allow the reader to experience something new. You can see this if you’ve ever used Skype or FaceTime to have a video call with someone else. Regardless of what our expectations of that particular medium are, it is nowhere near as “real” as being in the same room with the other person. There is a rounded experience of the other person, using the five senses, that is missing.
On balance, I don’t believe that Plato gives writing the credit it deserves. Could it be because there was no such thing as a blockbuster novel in his day (although, epic narrative poetry had been around for centuries, so he should have known better)? A well-written novel has the ability to create an entire world in the reader’s mind and allow the reader to escape into that world. It can allow readers to feel emotions along with the hero or heroine and to generally lose themselves in what you might call an alternative reality.
In some ways, writing might be even better than reality as we experience it, because it gives you the chance to analyze and dissect reality in a way that you couldn’t do as things happen to you in life. In a sense, writing can create a hyper-reality. It can also play with time. Nowadays, novels make full use of the flashback as a literary device, and even the flash forward. Also, the “omniscient author” point of view allows the reader to view the realities of various different characters in a way that would be impossible for an individual to achieve. Writing can also impart new information to a reader about almost any subject as a book progresses. In true reality there is no such thing as a running commentary explaining what is happening.
So, while Plato may be completely correct in his assertion that writing cannot represent reality, perhaps writing can go beyond reality and provide much more than can be experienced directly. You could argue that it is not healthy to escape “real reality” and lose oneself in a book where a kind of “pseudo reality” holds sway. But surely a little escapism is permitted, is it not, if we are to remain sane?


Churchill’s Daily Grind

Charwell, Clementine, corona cigars, ir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, nap, Nobel Prize in Literature, Uncategorized, Westerham Kent
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965), was arguably the most famous British statesman of the twentieth century. He was elected to the office of Prime Minister in 1940 and served in that capacity during the rest of the war years, until 1945. He later served as Prime Minister again from 1951 to 1955. He was an officer in the British Army, a historian, a writer and an artist. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.
When he left the army he looked forward to a life of relative freedom from the regimented existence he had experienced so far, but in fact chose to live every day by a strict regime. He lived in Chartwell, a huge country estate two miles south of Westerham, Kent, in the south of England. One of the researchers who worked for him as he was writing his books was heard to say: “He was totally organized, almost like a clock. His routine was absolutely dictatorial. He set himself a ruthless timetable every day and would get very agitated, even cross, if it was broken.”
In later years his regime was as follows:
He wakes at 8 a.m. and after shaving, makes for the first of his daily baths (filled by his valet), in which he spends some time soaking and wallowing, reciting poetry, rehearsing speeches and singing in a high tenor voice. After drying himself off, he dons a silk dressing gown and goes back to bed for two hours, not to sleep but to read all the daily newspapers. If he finds something of particular interest, he will shuffle across to his wife’s room where he will discuss it with Clementine for a while before returning to his room. While he is reading he pours his first scotch and soda, which he will top up with soda throughout the day, and lights one of his trademark Corona cigars.
When he has finished with the newspapers he tackles his voluminous mail, dictating answers to a secretary who will draft the return letters for his signature. Once the mail is done with he drafts memos and greets any visitors who are staying at the house, who dutifully troop into his bedroom for a chat.
Next he works on his speeches or checks the galley proofs of one of his books until it is time for an impressively formal three-course lunch at 1.15 p.m. He “dresses” for dinner, meaning a white tie and tails, including a cummerbund. He drinks champagne; Clementine drinks claret. Lunch is lavish and languorous and Winston dominates the conversation; but since he is such a fascinating conversationalist the guests don’t mind.
After lunch he totters out to the pond in the garden to feed the ducks, returning about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, whereupon he changes into a silk sleeping vest and climbs back into bed for a nap (a habit he picked up in Cuba when he was a war correspondent there). He wakes at 5 and plays cards with his family until 7 o’clock when he has the second of his baths.
Dinner is at 8.30 and once again there is a variety of guests and family at table. After dinner, as per the household tradition, the men retire to the drawing room for port, brandy and cigars. At 11 p.m. after all the guests have retired, Churchill has his second working period of the day. He dictates the text for his books to two secretaries, aided by his researcher, and works until about 2 a.m. If there is extra work to be done he will stay up till 3 or 4 to finish it.
            Using this extraordinary regime he was able to write between 2,000 and 5,000 words a day and up to 10,000 words at weekends.


Keeping a Notebook

ballpoint pen, brainstorming, iPhone, Macbook Air, newspaper column, notebooks, Uncategorized
Back in the days before smart phones were invented I used to keep a collection of small notebooks. At the time I was, among other things, a freelance journalist and had a regular column in a Sunday newspaper. I used the notebooks to scribble down ideas for the column so that if something occurred to me I would have a permanent record of it. The only problem with this arrangement was that I quite often I forgot to look at my notebook and spent hours pacing, trying out new ideas, and sweating as the deadline for my article loomed closer and closer on the horizon, while the notebook hid, inert and forgotten, in the inside pocket of my jacket.
I also used the notebooks for taking notes of practical household matters that I needed to attend to and for ideas for novels, short stories or novellas that occurred to me during the day or sometimes, rather inconveniently, in the middle of the night. In the late 90s I was working on my first novel, Lab Rat, and I was quite often to be seen scrawling in minuscule handwriting in a corner somewhere as ideas for the book occurred to me. The notebooks themselves were tiny, 3” x 5”, and came with a their own Lilliputian pencil. I usually replaced the pencil with something that would leave a more permanent mark, such as a stainless-steel refill for a ballpoint pen, which you could buy fairly cheaply in second-rate newsagents.
Notebooks became popular several years ago when Moleskine produced their own high-quality version. I seem to remember that the advertising played on the fact that all the great figures in the literary world had relied on notebooks, the implication being that you too could become a colossus of letters by owning one. And they weren’t cheap either, yet people bought them by the bucketful. I do suspect that possibly every home in the western world contains at least one Moleskine notebook lying unused in a drawer somewhere.
Nowadays, I rarely use notebooks. What I tend to do is take notes using the Notes app on my smart phone. I own an iPhone and a Macbook Air, so whenever I take a note on my phone it backs it up immediately by sending the text to my computer as an incoming email. Of course, I do miss the tactile quality of a physical notebook. Come to think of it, I rarely physically write anything these days, other than my signature on checks and on those little screens at cash registers that always produce a signature that makes you look as if you were drunk when you signed it. I’m beginning to wonder whether I will eventually lose the ability to write altogether and only remember how to type!





I came across a couple of those old notebooks of mine recently and was astonished to find whole outlines for novels and detailed descriptions of short stories and even the opening chapter of a novella, all written out in tiny handwriting that only a gnome could read. Some of it was just outlandish brainstorming or wittering drivel, but some of it was usable. Maybe I should go back and reread those old notebooks. It might give me an idea for a blockbuster novel that will make me a millionaire overnight. As I say, some of it was wittering drivel…

George Orwell’s 6 Rules

A Christmas Carol, Animal Farm, Charles Dickens, Hemingway, Huffington Post, Nineteen Eighty-Four, similes, Uncategorized
Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), aka George Orwell, was a British novelist, poet, essayist, journalist and critic. He is best known nowadays for his fiction, in particular the wryly polemical Animal Farm, published in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, which charts the fate of mankind in a dystopian near-future. But his essays are also highly acclaimed as are his works of non-fiction which covered everything from working-class life in the north of England to an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. He died at the age of 46 from complications arising from tuberculosis.
Orwell was a stickler for quality of writing and held himself to a high standard in his work. It is no surprise, then, that he had six rules that he used when tackling a piece of writing:
1.     Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This piece of advice is valid for any piece of writing, whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Of course, you want to avoid using the usual suspects: for example, “he was dead as a doornail.” Dickens destroys this particular simile once and for all at the start of A Christmas Carol when he says: “I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail.  I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.  But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.  You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
So the rule is: never use outworn similes and metaphors.
But you could equally go in the opposite direction and invent preposterous similes in an attempt to avoid the trap. A few years ago the Huffington Post published a list of the 15 worst similes and metaphors perpetrated by high school students in English class. Here are some examples:
“She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”
“She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn.”
“The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
And lastly: “The ballerina rose gracefully en pointeand extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.”
2.     Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Paradoxically this rule is entirely determined by serendipity and whether or not you are a bibliophile.
Orwell certainly used this rule in his own writing to achieve a level of conciseness that possibly only Hemingway could match.
3.     If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.     Never use the passive where you can use the active.
It is interesting that Orwell here doesn’t just say “never use the passive.” There are some times when the passive is exactly what is needed, for example if you don’t want to reveal the identity of the person who is carrying out a particular action, or if you deliberately wanted to sound distant, official or vague.
There is a test you can do on your own writing to change the passive into active. It’s called the Paramedic Method and it was originally developed by Richard Lanham in a book called Revising Prose. If you are interested, a description of the method can be found here.
5.     Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.     Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This comes as something of a relief. Orwell was not so wedded to his own rules that he couldn’t break them if he thought it would help. Nevertheless, I find that is good to keep them at the back of the mind while writing, as a kind of inner guide to good writing.