Poetry is Just for Sissies

decline of western civilization, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, nature poets, poetry, Psalms, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Uncategorized, war poets, writing poetry
Have you ever been sitting with a group of people whom you don’t know very well – perhaps coworkers or friends of friends – and the subject of poetry comes up. You know that you yourself have dabbled in that black art but you hang fire, you’re not about to blow the gaff and “out” yourself as an aspiring poet. Instead you wait. Where is the conversation headed? Will it rush headlong towards wholesale scorn, or is the company more sympathetic? You know you’ve written a few verses in moments of intense emotion; in fact you even composed a poem for your godfather’s fiftieth birthday but which you were too afraid to read, have read, or even have discovered. The conversation turns to which poets everyone can remember from high school. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? Robert Frost? T.S. Eliot? Or even some more recent deities like Sylvia Plath or John Ashbery? The names swim in your head like a thick steaming soup of unattainable brilliance. But most of all they conjure up the canons of English and American Literature, which make your paltry poetical offerings seem weak, thin and decidedly juvenile. Should you suddenly blurt out, “But I’ve written poetry too!!!” or simply sit there with a vague enigmatic smile and let the moment pass, like a badly digested plate of meatballs?
If you are a woman, it’s not so bad. Women like poetry, don’t they? Well, okay, not all women; but a lot of women seem to be more attuned to the finer sentiments, such as you might find expressed in lines of verse. But if you happen to be a guy and you take the unalterable step of admitting to a penchant for poetry then you may as well smoke your last cigarette and put on the blindfold, because, my friend, your life is over.
Exaggeration? Probably – a little. But saying the dreaded phrase, “I write poetry,” can be a bit like saying, “I am infected with the SARS virus.” It has consequences. And for the poet those consequences might involve reactions like, “Would you mind (snicker) reading us some of it to us (chortle)?” – unless, of course, you stumble across a group of people who have actually read some poetry since they were eighteen and are open to the possibility that they might enjoy writing some too.
Before the twentieth century, poetry was seen as a necessary part of the refined life that civilized people strove for. It was, in fact, possible to make a moderately good living from writing poetry, provided you actually had some talent. But like so many other elements of the refined lifestyle, poetry too has become devalued. The misunderstanding about poetry nowadays is that its arguments or themes or topics are largely ephemeral, emotional or effeminate. Yet poetry has addressed and still does address the key moments of life, the depth of human experience, and the transcendence of the human spirit, and gives the lie to the assertion that humankind cannot rise above itself. In fact, like music, the best poetry has a quality about it that circumnavigates rational thought and hits home to the heart in a way that takes the breath away. It can draw us up to a spiritual level in a way that ordinary prose cannot hope to match.
Poetry is not just for fops and dandies. And if you read any of the war poets from the various different conflicts of the last two centuries, or the poets who observe the struggle for survival of animals in the natural world, or the poets who commentate on the decline of western civilization, or even the poet who composed the Book of Psalms, you realize that not only is their poetry robust and visceral but it is also true.
Poetry is not for sissies, it’s for real men and women in a crazy world who desperately need some guiding light in the darkness.


Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

10 rules of writing, Dutch, Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty, Glitz, Hombre, Mr. Majestyk, Out of Sight, Rum Punch, Uncategorized
Elmore John Leonard, Jr. (October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013), or Dutch as he was known to his many friends, was an American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. He began his writing career in the early 1950s writing Westerns, but went on to specialize in the crime and thrillers genres. Many of his books have been taken up by Hollywood and turned into movies. His best-known works are probably Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, Mr. Majestyk, Glitz and Rum Punch (which was adapted for the screen as Jackie Brown).
Leonard was a compelling writer and had his own set of 10 rules for how a piece of fiction should be handled. Here they are:
1.     Never open a book with weather.
This is a strange one and I’m not quite sure why Leonard put this first. It is quite possible that it just reflects his sense of humor. On the other hand, beginning a book with the weather would almost certainly postpone the introduction of both dialogue and action, so it makes sense not to delay the book by getting involved in some tedious aside from the get-go about how it was raining or snowing. Sometimes people say that in certain works of fiction the weather is such a big factor that it becomes like a major character in itself. Even so, beginning a novel with weather is a very dangerous business and because you run the risk of turning the reader off straight away and they might just throw the book aside and never read any further. In a novel or short story you want to grab the reader from the very first words, introduce the main characters as soon as possible and get the action off to a flying start.
2.     Avoid prologues.
I guess the same applies to beginning a book with a prologue. It can delay the substance of the book. For that reason, you could argue that if what you say in the prologue is important, why isn’t it contained within the body of the book. Similarly, if it is key information that you want to get across, isn’t it better to include it as dialogue from some of the main characters, rather than talking directly to the reader to explain it beforehand? And if it’s not very important information, then why have it at all?
3.     Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
This seems to me good advice. In older novels, you quite often find characters “expostulating,” “ruminating,” or “exclaiming” dialogue. But equally, how characters say something can distract from what they are actually saying. “Said” is unassuming, incidental and doesn’t get in the way of the dialogue. In any case, you can convey a character’s attitude by adding little descriptions like, James did a double-take. “What the hell?” he said, rather than meddling with “said.”
4.     Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
This follows the same rationale. There is also the possibility that if you use a lot of adverbs you begin to draw attention to the way in which a passage is written rather than what it’s actually saying. And that means you are beginning to disrupt the rapport you have with the reader and break the spell that you have put a reader under as they become absorbed in your novel.
5.     Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
This makes sense if you want to be taken seriously by the reader. Using exclamation marks sparingly, if at all, ensures that you maintain a certain gravitas or cool as a writer. It makes you more reticent as a writer, which is a good thing because you want to be as inconspicuous as possible. You want your readers to become absorbed in the action, and exclamation points can destroy that absorption.
6.     Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This seems to me to typify Elmore Leonard’s writing. It’s low-key and unassuming. He lets the characters drive the action and, rather than commenting on it himself, he prefers to let his readers fill in the emotional blanks. Apart from the fact that “all hell broke loose” is a cliché in itself and therefore should be avoided for that reason alone, “suddenly” also has that sense of the writer commenting on the action rather than letting it develop naturally from the characters interactions.
7.     Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Regional dialects are difficult to convey successfully, partly because they are difficult for the reader to understand immediately. In a novel or short story, the higher the profile of the character using the dialect the more regional language you end up using. Accents and patois place an added strain on the reader and force the reader to work fairly hard to understand what a character is on about. In the end, the reader might just give up, throw the book across the room and turn to something less intellectually challenging, like TV.
8.     Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
I quite often marvel at some writers who like to give detailed descriptions as each character appears. It is usually pointless, since the important thing about character interaction is what they say rather than how they look. The only exception is if you want to make sure that readers don’t confuse two characters. But then, you’re not really giving a detailed description so much as pointing out the characters’ distinguishing characteristic.
9.     Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Again this is typical of Leonard’s style of writing. In fact, if you read any of his books, you realize that he prefers to begin a scene with dialogue and let the reader gradually intuit where the characters are from hints embedded in the prose or in the conversation. On the other hand, if the place or thing in question is key to the plot, then some description is almost always required. But good writers can sum up places and things with an economy of words, such that no detailed description is necessary.
10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Isn’t this the ideal description of a “page-turner”, a book that the reader is compelled to read because it has captured his or her interest and where one incident leads to another. The parts that readers skip, in fact, are usually detailed descriptions of places and things (see point #9). If you have written a novel and are now editing it, mostly what you want to do is cut out or rewrite passages that are irrelevant to the plot. To do that well, you may cut out so much that you end up with a novella rather than a novel. So be it. The work will be much more readable and better reviewed for the excision of padding, fillers and pointless explanation of people and things that are not key to the plot.
And here is Elmore Leonard’s final point and his most important rule, one that, in fact, sums up the previous 10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”


The Creative Gene

corpus callosum, creative gene, Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University, Geoffrey Hill, Kenneth Heilman, serotonin, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare, writing process
According to Wikipedia, the famous infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will, all things being equal, type out the complete works of William Shakespeare. The theorem is, of course, preposterous since the chimpanzee would almost certainly be paralyzed by repetitive strain injury long before the completion of the task, and in any case we already know that it was William Shakespeare who penned the works in question, not some hyperactive, key-punching primate…
Despite the ludicracy of the proposal, and the reason, in fact, why Shakespeare did not take billions of years to produce his plays and poetry comes down to quite a simple statement: the man was a genius. When you think about it there are only 26 letters in the alphabet and those letters can only be combined in a limited number of ways. Why is it then that when Shakespeare combined those 26 letters they came out not as plain prose, or gibberish or the Maastricht Treaty (but I repeat myself…) and instead came out as:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
“To be or not to be. That is the question.”
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
There are some skills that seem defy analysis and Shakespeare had them in spades. There is a  process that allows the abstract thought that germinates in someone’s mind to articulate itself in words that are memorable, beautiful or poignant. And that process is called creativity and it is present more intensely for artists, writers, and musicians. But creativity occurs not necessarily when the writer or artist or musician comes up with new ideas, but also (and far more usually) when they combine together things that are already known in order to create a new entity, a song, a painting, a novel.
Not all of us are gifted in this area. Some of us find that our comfort zone is in analyzing data, others in understanding mathematical formulae, others in performing repetitive tasks to perfection, others in relating well to people, and still others in leading and managing groups. The traditional definition of the creative profession is, by and large, not for everyone.
This interesting article discusses the possibility of there being a genetic component to creativity:
“Two years ago Kenneth Heilman and his team at the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University discovered that the brains of artistically creative individuals have a particular characteristic that may enhance creativity.
“The brain is divided into two halves, or hemispheres, that are joined by a bundle of fibers called the corpus callosum. Writers, artists and musicians were found to have a smaller corpus callosum, which may augment their creativity by allowing each side of their brain to develop its own specialization.”
Several studies support the possibility of a “creative gene” existing. And often highly creative individuals have a bipolar element to their psychological makeup. Churchill, Beethoven and Hemingway all had bipolar tendencies that allowed them during their “up” periods to be highly creative.
The creative person, according to recent studies, experiences an increase in serotonin levels from creating something. Geoffrey Hill, an English poet who in his early days was lucky if he managed to write one poem a week, now states that his average is one poem per day. This phenomenal level of output would be remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that creativity is like a drug. The will to create can often come from what amounts to an addiction to the emotional “high” that results from writing something new, creating something that has never been seen before.
In fact, without the addiction, many would-be writers fall at the first fence and never get further than penning the first chapter or two of the blockbusting novel that lies dormant within them. Individuals who are addicted to the drug, plow on and produce novels, poetry, plays and any piece of writing that can give them the emotional boost they crave.
For the would-be writer who is not an addict of that creative uplift, there is a down side. It is all very well coming up with a brilliant plot for a novel, but the actual manual labor of writing out the dialogue, interspersing it with action, structuring the book, and generally changing the initial thought into a piece of writing that lives and breathes is a different matter. For the serotonin addict all the writing that goes into a novel or a poem or even a nonfiction book feeds the habit.
For writers what is required is not just a genetic predisposition to writing, but an enjoyment of the process itself, a certain joy that comes from discovering that you have produced something new, a character, a plot, a situation, a turn of phrase that has not been used before. Yes, there may be a creative gene, but how we nurture it, use it, feed it is up to us.





So if you think you have the creative gene, that you are blessed with the ability to create and combine words in unique ways, that you are enamored of the writing process itself and you would write even if there was no monetary result, and if you are addicted to the serotonin boost that comes from creating a new piece of writing, what are you doing about it? What can you do that couldn’t be done by an incredibly long-lived and sore-fingered chimpanzee?

5 rookie mistakes when writing a novel

Lab Rat, Milano, novel writing, Oscar Wilde, outline, punctuation grammar, Uncategorized
“I quite admit that modern novels have many good points. All I insist on is that, as a class, they quite unreadable.” Oscar Wilde




They say that everyone has a novel inside of them. Could this be the reason for the epidemic of heartburn that pharmaceutical companies are constantly telling us about? It may be true that many  people think they have an idea for a novel, but there are very few people who actually take the brave step of going ahead and writing one. If you feel that you have a story that you would like to write, before you start it is worth bearing in mind the following obstacles to successfully getting it down in writing.
1. Not having a clear idea of where the story is going
The first novel I wrote, Lab Rat, was created mainly during lunch breaks. The company I worked for allowed employees an hour for lunch and during this generous time endowment I would sit at my desk and type away at the rate of about 500-600 words per day. When I got to around the fifty-thousand-word mark I stopped to consider what I was doing. Basically I was busy creating a monster of a novel that had more cast members than Ben Hur and meandered along its merry way creating problems that were never really solved by any of the characters. I had no idea where the story was leading and there was not even the slightest hope of plot resolution even in the distant future. It was at that point that I decided to draw up an outline and follow it to conclusion. Well, eventually I finished writing the novel and left it for several years before I went back and tried to grapple with it again. It was a mammoth task knocking it into shape, that involved cutting out about thirty characters, conflating timescales and eradicating from the text passages that seemed pretty good but were irrelevant.
There are a lot of people who say that to write a novel all you need to do is start writing. They talk about the author discovering the story as he or she goes along and allowing the characters to dictate the plot. That is all very well but quite often what you end up with is a primordial soup of a novel that needs so much work to rectify its deficiencies that it’s like writing it all over again. Either that or you end up with a novel that is unreadable and ultimately unsatisfying for the reader.
I’ve nothing against trying out a chapter or two first, without any clear aim in mind, but what I’ve found is that the sooner you sit down and write out an outline of the plot the better the book will be and the fewer drastic changes that are needed when you’ve finished.
2. Not tying up loose ends
It’s a tricky exercise writing a novel and it is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of plot points and forget to bring to completion some part of the action that you kicked off earlier. That’s another good reason to come up with an outline. With one novel I wrote, Milano, about an art heist, I even went so far as to draw up a chart of each scene. The succession of events was complicated and the chart helped me to keep track of everything that was mentioned early in the novel and make sure that it was brought to a satisfactory solution in the end.
3. Not finishing what you started
There must be thousands of desk drawers throughout the world containing the manuscripts of novels that were never finished. This can happen for a number of reasons. Many people dabble at writing a novel but don’t have enough confidence in their ability or they are daunted by the apparent immensity of the task before them and the endeavor slowly fades into nothingness.
One thing I’ve found that helps is treating writing as a professional activity rather than a pastime. That way, you can justify the time you carve out for writing without feeling guilty about it. Conversely, it also places some responsibility on your shoulders and forces you to write when you’re supposed to, without shirking.
Another thing that helps is if you plan to write a certain amount each day, or each weekend, or whenever it is that is a good time for you to write. That gives you a target to aim for and also gives you a sense of achievement when you’ve completed the task.
It also helps if you tell other people about your novel-writing project. It gives you some accountability, since they well might ask you how it’s going. You might even end up writing because you’re ashamed to face what other people might say if you give up. Which is all grist to the mill.
4. Including characters who are too similar
This is more to do with the nuts and bolts of your novel, rather the writing process itself. I don’t know about you but if I come across characters in a novel who have similar sounding names I get confused. I get confused even if the names have the same initial letter. In my own novels what I have tried to do is come up with a set of names that have different initial letters just to keep it clear in the mind of the reader whom everybody is.
Of course, that doesn’t really help much if two characters are very similar in other ways. For example, you might have two tall, dark, brooding protagonists who have a similar line in dialogue. That too can confuse the reader.
The same thing can happen if your novel involves a cast of family members. Sometimes that too can be difficult to straighten out in the reader’s mind.
The key is to give each character not just different names, but different characteristics and make sure that you periodically refer back to those characteristics. It can also help if you reiterate their relationship to the other characters by referring to previous incidents that have occurred in the novel that they were involved in.
5. Bad punctuation and/or grammar
Ah, this is a bit of a bugbear, isn’t it. Basically, if you produce a novel that has defective grammar and/or punctuation, it is never going to get published – unless you decide to publish it independently yourself. But even then, it will most likely garner one-star reviews if there are glaring textual defects like that.
If you are not very good at grammar and punctuation, it is a good idea to study it. One of the best grammar and punctuation manuals, I’ve found, is the Chicago Manual of Style. It goes into detail about every aspect of correct usage and syntax. A different edition is published every year or so, but you can purchase previous editions very cheaply from online bookstores.
If you are still stumped about how to write proper English, don’t despair. You can always write your novel and then hand it to an editor to correct for you. Yes, it might cost you a few bucks but you have the satisfaction of knowing that when you submit it to a publisher at least it’s in decent shape.
So if you have a novel inside you, don’t just reach for the Zantac. Get it down in writing – or typing – but remember the above points. They could just save you hours of heartache and pain.


Thurber’s Daily Grind

Algonquin Club, humor, James Thurber, new yorker, Uncategorized, Vicious Circle, Walter Mitty
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.
In the case of James Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961), one of the most famous writers for the iconic New Yorker magazine from 1927 to the early 1950s, he tackled writing in a rather unorthodox way. He had no strict schedule but wrote everywhere and anywhere. He was often found scribbling in a notebook right in the middle of the cocktail parties and literary soirées that he was in fact writing about.
His eyesight was terrible, partly as a result of an accident he incurred as a boy when his brother shot him in the eye with an arrow, and partly as a result of the other eye straining to do the work of two. He was the author of possibly one of the most famous short stories in western literature, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Most of us have of course seen the movie in which Danny Kaye stars as the hapless nincompoop who daydreams his way through life as a famous composer, a military hero and skilled surgeon, and can hardly tie his shoelaces in the real world. It came as a shock to me years later, when I eventually got round to reading the story, and found that it was only about five or six pages long.
Thurber was not a member of the Algonquin Club, which made its name for the startling and hilarious repartee which was the common currency among the eclectic group of writers, playwrights, composers, and actors. In fact, he was a critic of the “Vicious Circle,” as Dorothy Parker had named it, and kept to his own coterie of friends. Nevertheless he was just as popular in his own circle and made a name for himself at social functions as a storyteller. Tall, gaunt, stooping, and looking slightly fey with his thick glasses and mop of gray hair combed back from his cliff-like forehead, he cut a singular figure among the bon vivants and debutants of New York’s party scene. In particular, he had a photographic memory of sorts and could remember the birthdays of everyone who had ever told him when their birthday was – at his reckoning, over two hundred people. He was a marvelous verbal storyteller and had an encyclopedic general knowledge on everything from the history of the bloodhound to the history of the American people.
But when he wrote a story for the magazine, he was an obsessive reviser. “For me it’s mostly a question of rewriting. It’s part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I’ve been working on —“The Train on Track Six,” it’s called—was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can’t be more than twenty- thousand words.” (The Paris Review, Fall 1955)





James Thurber was probably one of the most skillful exponents of the art of writing humor in American literary history. He has left a legacy that few modern humor writers can match, regardless of the chaos and mayhem of his writing practices.

Humorous Verse

Belloc, Chesterton, Harry Graham, humorous verse, new yorker, ogden nash, poetry, rhyme, Uncategorized
One of the types of poetry that has fallen into disuse is humorous verse. It had been popular in the first half of the twentieth century but seemed to falter and die out from the mid-sixties onwards, only turning up now and then in magazines like the New Yorker as a kind of homage to the greats of the genre. In some ways, it transmogrified into the humorous songs to be found in Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies, which is a pity because often this kind of verse sounds better in its native environment, the unaccompanied human voice, where the proper emphasis can be placed of the key words to humorous effect. Some of the rhyming verse produced by such eminent writers as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc is now so obscure that nobody can understand it anymore, because it refers to people, places and events of the time in which it were written. But most of it – at least the bulk of what has been published in book form so far – is by turns hilarious, droll, amusing and clever.
Hilaire Belloc, in particular, wrote verse that purported to be for children, but which in fact contains a level of verbosity that would stump the average nipper and even some adults, but that’s actually part of the fun. Many of these poems were cautionary tales about little children who were naughty and came to tragic ends. For most adult readers, Belloc’s poems can be a source of great pleasure especially when read aloud, because he is a master not only of rhyme but also of rhythm. Here are a few snippets from his book “The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts:”
The Hippopotamus
I shoot the hippopotamus with bullets made of platinum
Because if I use leaden ones his hide is sure to flatten ’em.
The Frog
Be kind and tender to the frog
   And do not call him names
As ‘Slimy skin’, or ‘Polly-wog’
   Or likewise ‘Ugly James’
Or ‘Gap-a-grin’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong’,
   Or ‘Billy Bandy-knees’:
The frog is justly sensitive
   To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
   A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
   Who keep a frog (and by the way,
They are extremely rare).
The Python
A python I should not advise, –
It needs a doctor for its eyes
And has the measles yearly.
However, if you feel inclined
To get one (to improve your mind,
And not from fashion merely),
Allow no music near its cage;
And when it flies into a rage
Chastise it, most severely.
I had an aunt in Yucatan
Who bought a python from a man
And kept it for a pet.
She died because she never knew
These simple little rules and few; –
The snake is living yet.
Then there’s the slightly darker humor of Harry Graham whose “Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes” contains some classic verse, to wit:
Weep not for little Leonie,
Abducted by a French Marquis!
Though loss of honor was a wrench,
Just think how it’s improved her French.
Billy, in one of his nice new sashes
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes
And now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.
Nurse, who peppered baby’s face
(She mistook it for a muffin),
Held her tongue and kept her place,
‘Laying low and sayin’ nuffin’;
Mother, seeing baby blinded,
Said, “Oh, nurse, how absent-minded!”
And G.K. Chesterton?
Of Uncle Humphrey who can sing?
His name can’t rhyme with anything,
How much superior is Aunt Harriet
Who rhymes correctly to Iscariot
But, at least stateside, the most famous exponent of the short, sharp, ditty is Ogden Nash, whose humorous verse infiltrated the popular magazines of the day. “I think in terms of rhyme, and have since I was six years old,” he stated in a 1958 news interview. Here are a few of his zingers:
Reflections on Ice-breaking
Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker
Family Court
One would be in less danger
From the wiles of the stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.
Introspective Reflection
I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.
It is a pity that there are not more outlets for this sort of brilliance nowadays. And it is brilliance because, despite how easy it looks, it takes a great deal of skill to write convincing humorous poetry – just as much skill, I would argue, as it takes to produce serious poetry.
I leave you with a slightly longer poem by Harry Graham which is so clever you wonder how he could come up with it. It’s called “Poetical Economy”.
Poetical Economy
What hours I spent of precious time,
What pints of ink I used to waste,
Attempting to secure a rhyme
To suit the public taste,
Until I found a simple plan
Which makes the tamest lyric scan!
When I’ve a syllable de trop,
I cut it off, without apol.:
This verbal sacrifice, I know,
May irritate the schol.;
But all must praise my dev’lish cunn.
Who realize that Time is Mon.
My sense remains as clear as cryst.,
My style as pure as any Duch.
Who does not boast a bar sinist.
Upon her fam. escutch.;
And I can treat with scornful pit.
The sneers of ev’ry captious crit.
I gladly publish to the pop.
A scheme of which I make no myst.,
And beg my fellow scribes. to cop.
This labor-saving syst.
I offer it to the consid.
Of ev’ry thoughtful individ.
The author, working like a beav.,
His readers’ pleasure could redoub.
Did he but now and then abbrev.
The work he gives his pub.
(This view I most partic. suggest
To A. C. Bens. and G. K. Chest.)
If Mr. Caine rewrote The Scape.,
And Miss Corell, condensed Barabb.,
What could they save in foolscap pape.
Did they but cult. the hab.,
Which teaches people to suppress
All syllables that are unnec.!
If playwrights would but thus dimin.
The length of time each drama takes,
(The Second Mrs. Tanq. by Pin.
or even Ham., by Shakes.)
We could maintain a watchful att.
When at a Mat. on Wed. or Sat.
Have done, ye bards, with dull monot.!
Foll. my examp., O, Stephen Phill.,
O, Owen Seam., O, William Wat.,
O, Ella Wheeler Wil.,
And share with me the grave respons.
of writing this amazing nons.!


Amazon At Last Opens a Bricks & Mortar Bookstore

Amazon, bookstore, Kindle, physical book, Seattle, Uncategorized

Amazon, a company that has spent years slowly devouring the market share of physical books in favor of the e-book has, as of Tuesday last week, opened a bookstore in Seattle. Bookseller Waterstones is quoted as saying it hopes the venture will “fall flat on its face.”

Because of the popularity of e-reader devices, principally the Amazon Kindle, the market for physical books has not exactly shrunk to a wrinkled nub of its former ebullient self, but over the past few years it has certainly diminished. Scores of bookstores have been forced to close because they cannot compete with the aggressive tactics of the marketing giant. In fact sales at bookstores are expected to finish up this year lower than they were during the slump twenty years ago.
The five thousand books in the new bookstore are to be displayed with the face-forward (as opposed to spineward) and will be shelved according to their star rating. Moreover, snippets from online reviews will be quoted verbatim on plaques above the books, in order to encourage sales, and the prices will exactly match what they sell for on the Amazon website.
Why would Amazon take what looks like a retrograde step in its marketing plan, which so far has seemed hell-bent on eradicating the physical book from the face of the earth? One reason might be that, despite its best effort at evangelizing people into the e-book gospel, there are still millions of people who prefer holding a physical book, or who simply can’t afford to by a Kindle e-reader. Nearly a billion paperbacks were sold last year, half a billion hardbacks were also sold, as were half a billion e-books. So despite the hype about e-books tolling the death knell for physical books, e-books still have a long way to go before they can match the compelling allure of paper.
Seattle is the home of Amazon headquarters, so it can be inferred that the bosses of the company will keep a close eye on the development of this foray down from hyperspace to the nitty-gritty of the physical world. And there are a number of other reasons why Seattle may have been chosen as the homecoming queen of the ball (see this interesting report for details).
It is interesting how technology that is centuries old, i.e. the codex of the physical book, can still command such respect when ostensibly the e-book seems more convenient. But then, books are so easy to navigate through, especially if they have a decent table of contents and an index. By comparison the e-book seems clumsy. Where you might flick to the back of a book, consult the index, then flick back to the exact page you are looking for, with an e-book the quickest you can achieve the same thing is by searching on a word or phrase and then paging through potentially scores of entries to try to find what you are looking for.
On the other hand, I can see the value of the e-book if you are going on a long journey or an extended vacation, since it means you don’t have the inconvenience of lugging around half a dozen novels with you wherever you go. But that doesn’t happen that often, does it? And besides, with e-books you will never have the chance of showing somebody into your spacious eighteenth century library and dragging them round the place with a smug, self-satisfied smirk on your face.
Over the years I have collected quite a number of large-format art books, covering painting and sculpture from the Renaissance onwards. Clicking on an e-book certainly can’t match the pleasure of opening out a double-page spread of some ancient masterpiece and studying the detail minutely. Even though e-book readers may have color and even zoomability, that still doesn’t come close to the feel, maneuverability and wide aspect ratios of the physical book.





Frankly, I think Amazon, ravening beast that it is, has made a very shrewd move pushing out into the relatively unknown waters of bookstore sales. Now if only they would open a branch in my neighborhood…

Doodle Space Notebook

Doodle Space Notebook, doodling, Uncategorized
           About six months ago I was sitting at my desk and I remembered a game I used to play with my son, Jerry. We would sit down with a sheaf of blank paper and one of us would make a squiggle with a pen or pencil. The other person’s job was to try to add to the squiggle in such a way that it was transformed into a recognizable picture of something. Then the roles would be reversed and so the game went on.

           It struck me that most people like to doodle, either when they are on the phone, or waiting in a doctor’s waiting room, or during a long and tedious lecture in class. The only problem with doodling is that often you can find yourself doodling on lined paper, which somewhat spoils the work of art. So while I was sitting there musing about the various merits and demerits of this abstruse conundrum I had a flash of inspiration. What if there was a notebook that had blank spaces on every page, so that someone could doodle away in them without the effect being marred by lines running through it. And what if one of those spaces had starter squiggle, just like in the game. And so the idea for the Doodle Space Notebook was midwifed into the world and became a reality.

It took me a while to draw out a squiggle on each page and I found it surprisingly difficult not to repeat myself after a while. Nevertheless I persevered and after grueling toil and frustration I managed to produce the 100-page notebook and start selling it on Amazon.
The blurb on the back of the notebook goes like this:
The Doodle Space Notebook is the only notebook that leaves proper space for doodling. Everyone doodles from time to time. How annoying is it when you’ve just completed an epic doodle only to have the effect spoiled by the lines on the page disfiguring your artwork? The Doodle Space Notebook solves this problem. Each page has, not just one, but three spaces in which you can doodle away to your heart’s content, while filling the surrounding lines with notes, poetry, nasty comments about your neighbors or any other literary masterpiece you like. Each of the 100 pages contains a starter squiggle that you are challenged to make into something recognizable by drawing on it using the squiggle as a basis. The Doodle Space Notebook combines sketchbook and notepad in a wonderful blend of art and literature that you won’t find in any other notebook or journal. It also comes with a tasteful and elegant cover that is reminiscent of the Victorian journals and diaries of many moons ago. All in all, the Doodle Space Notebook is a welcome addition to all the other notebooks, journals and scribble pads that you have collected over the years and can take pride of place on any bookshelf.
So if you’re bored and find that you are of an artistic bent why not invest in your very own boredom-cracker in the shape of a handsome multi-purpose notebook. It’s available on Amazon.com for the ridiculously low price of $6.99 (and it’s even cheaper in the UK).


Lost in Translation

French, German, Italian, Spanish, translation, translator, Uncategorized
I work as a freelance translator of books from Italian and French into English. It is interesting work for the most part but one thing I have learned over the years is that translation is just as creative as any other kind of writing. The easy part of translating is working out what the author is saying in the foreign language. The difficult part is expressing that in English in such a way that it doesn’t sound as if it had be translated. The aim is to make the translation sound as if it had been written in English in the first place.
Here’s an example from Italian:
“La decorazione epigrafica si trova lungo i bordi dell’ottagono posto ai piedi del Cristo. Si tratta di una decorazione in oro, la cui disposizione è insolita.”
You could translate that literally like this:
“The epigraphic decoration finds itself along the edges of the octagon placed at the feet of the Christ. One is dealing with a decoration in gold, whose disposition is unusual.”
As you can see, it’s not entirely incomprehensible, but it certainly sounds as if it had been translated from another language. However, the job of the translator is to make it sound as if it had been written in English. So you could translate it like this instead:
“There is epigraphic decoration along the edges of the octagon at Christ’s feet. The decoration is in gold and is arranged in an unusual way.”
There are plenty of examples of bad translation. Like this sign in a Chinese hotel room: “Don’t lean on the mirror and throw the thick staff to it.”
Or the sign at a railroad station in Italy warning travelers: “No consummation on the tables.”
Or the warning in a public park in Spain: “Please do not empty your dog here.”
Or this admonition on a Chinese-made remote-control helicopter: “If blade damage. don’t be fly. otherwise it will create the human body or blame damage.”
And there are thousands more aberration out there just waiting to be misunderstood.





English is a confusing enough language without bizarre phrases populating public places and instruction manuals. Just think how difficult it would be if English wasn’t your first language and you had to learn it from scratch. English grammar is much simpler than that of inflected languages like French, Italian, Spanish and German. But it compensates for this deficiency by having scores of irregular verbs, weird spelling, unpredictable word pronunciation and words pronounced differently depending on the context; not to mention the constant use of proverbs and idiomatic phrases that must be the bane of any student of the English language. As Edmund Spenser noted as early as 1579, “they have made our English language a gallimaufry or hodgepodge of all other speeches,”… thus proving his own point.

Hemingway’s Daily Grind

1920s, adventurer, American fiction, creative writing, daily routine, discipline, drunkenness, gambling, Hemingway, Paris, suicide, Uncategorized, unfaithfulness


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.
Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961) was one of the most celebrated American authors of the twentieth century, a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. His short sharp writing style had considerable influence on twentieth century fiction writing. But though he has had many imitators no one can quite pull it off the way Hem could. Most of his work was produced from the 1920s to the 1950s: seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction books. Many of his works are considered classics of American fiction and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
When Hemingway lived in Paris in the 1920s with the first of his four wives, Hadley, and their young son, there was not enough room in their Spartan apartment for him to work. So he would often go and sit in one of the bistros or cafés nearby and write quietly in a corner.
“It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with   other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.” (A Moveable Feast)
Often he would become completely absorbed in what he was writing so that he didn’t notice either the time, or anyone else around him and would come to much later as if he had been sleeping. Then he would order, say, a dozen oysters along with a half-carafe of the local dry white wine and dawdle over that until it was time to go home or go on to meet friends.
After a while Hem and his wife moved to larger premises and there he would get up a daybreak when it was freezing cold in the apartment and begin writing as he gradually warmed and the sun shone through the windows. If he was writing a short story or a novel, he would write until about midday and finish when he knew what was going to happen next in the action. In other words he would stop short just before a key moment. So the next day, when he sat down to write, he would read what he had written the day before, making any necessary changes, and then just continue where he left off. He always said that the agonizing thing about writing was waiting for the next day to come around.
In many ways the rest of his life was a bit of a mess. He was unfaithful to his wife, drank to excess, gambled away his money, was something of an adventurer, and eventually committed suicide a few days before his sixty-second birthday. But he was always disciplined when it came to writing. It was as if he knew that it was his one most important talent and that it had to be nurtured and protected.