Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “writing”

The Writer’s Voice

The Writer's Voice: A workbook for writers in AfricaThe Writer’s Voice: A workbook for writers in Africa by Dorian Haarhoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about writing and encouraging people to write. I’ve read or looked at quite a number of these over the last few years, and you can find lots of advice for aspiring writers on the Web as well. I glance at a few of them when they appear in my Twitter feed, but there is a remarkable sameness about them all. I suspect that the writers of advice for writers have read very little other than books of advice to writers, and rehash it in blog articles and the like. I think if any aspiring writers took that advice seriously, all novels would be boring and formulaic, and eventually no one would read fiction anymore.

This one is somewhat different. For a start it is written for people in Southern Africa, and it is urging people who wouldn’t normally think of writing to tell their stories. I think that is a laudable aim. The convoluted history of Southern Africa over the last 70 years is a story that needs to be told if we are to make sense of it and of our lives, and it needs to be told from many different viewpoints.

So it lacks the usual advice on how to start your novel in the middle of things, with startling and violent events, and let the explanation of them percolate through afterwards. It also is a bit thin on practical advice on how to prepare your manuscript for publication and send it to a publisher. Perhaps that is wise, because such information easily becomes dated.

So much of the book is motivational, where to find your inspiration. And there are many different ways and places to find inspiration, so most readers of the book will find at least a few that may inspire them. Many of them are designed for use in a group, and so they won’t appeal to the solitary reader of the book.

One of the motivational stories he gives is of the writer’s genius. The Romans believed in the idea of a genius. The genius, a personal spirit, arrived at birth. And it carried a person’s full potential. He offers this quote:

The genius was considered a birthright, but it had to be nourished in order to survive… the ancient Roman was expected to make a birthday sacrifice to his or her genius. If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living (Dove 1995:17).

The myth is not so far removed from some African belief systems. I believe we are born with a writer’s genius, a writer’s potential. For those of us who are literate, this belief contains a challenge which John Irving the novelist, calls ‘the necessary strict toiling with the language.’

I quite liked that, but I would be inclined to use it in a different way — to incororporate a genius into my story, rather than use it as an inspiration for a story.
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The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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More misused English words that make people look silly

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a link to an article 20 misused English words that make smart people look silly — Quartz that I thought was somewhat dated. It listed commonly confused word pairs of about fifty years ago. But there were a lot of words missing from the list that are commonly confused today.

I can’t remember when I last heard or saw anyone confuse accept and except. But I read and hear people confusing deny and refute every week.

When an election is in the offing, I hear newsreaders on radio and TV talking every day about people who are “illegible to vote”. That may be a pronunciation error, but it certainly creates confusion in the minds of listeners and viewers.

And even policemen are now apparently beginning to confuse perpetrators with suspects. Surely they should be trained to know the difference.

  • Deny — to deny something is to asset that it is not true.
  • Refute — to refute something is to produce evidence that it is not true.

It is sad to see the way the media connive at politicians’ lies when they report that they “refuted” something when they only denied it.

For more on the deny-refute difference see here: Rebut, Refute, Deny

  • Perpetrator — someone who has done something bad, like committing a crime
  • Suspect — someone who as been identified as the possible perpetrator of a crime

Bear in mind that speaking of “an unknown suspect” is a contradiction in terms. It means you think you know who did it, but you don’t know who it is. The perpetrator is someone who commits a crime, whether known or unknown. A suspect is someone you think was the perpetrator.

The difference between deny and refute also shows up another difference, but this time between US English and most other dialects of English, where the term moot point has almost opposite meanings.

If you deny something and I don’t accept your denial, it becomes, in my South African English, a moot point — that is something debatable, on which we may agree to differ, but differ nonetheless. If, however, you refute it, there can be no further debate, and it ceases to be a moot point, that is, it is no longer open to debate.

In US English, however, the meaning of moot point is almost the opposite: a moot point is not something open to debate, but rather something not worth debating. Something to beat in mind when you read something by authors using a different dialect of English from your own. Eish!

 

 

Medium and Niume — what are they?

For some time now I’ve been hearing about web sites called Medium and Niume, and I’ve been urged to join them. The trouble is, I don’t know what they are, or what they are for.

Today I saw an article that gave at least some information about Medium — ‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It – The New York Times:

Medium was supposed to be developing its business around advertising, which would have paid for writers like Ms. Norman and made the site viable. Then it abruptly pivoted in January and laid off a third of the staff, or about 45 people. Advertising was suddenly no longer the solution but the villain.

“Ad-driven systems can only reward attention,” Mr. Williams says. “They can’t reward the right answer. Consumer-paid systems can. They can reward value. The inevitable solution: People will have to pay for quality content.”

But it doesn’t look good.

I went to the Medium site to find out more, but the main menu was unreadable — designed by web designers who firmly believe that illegibility provides an enhanced “user experience”. Holding a magnifying glass up to the screen enabled me to read enough of the low-contrast text to see that there was no “About” page that would tell you about the site and what its purpose was and how it worked. The NY Times article gives some hints at the thinking behind it, but doesn’t actually tell you what “it” is.

Niume is even worse. You have to join it before you can even see if there is an about page and decide whether you want to join it or not. How’s that for buying a pig in a poke? Whatever advantages it might have, that’s enough to put me off right there.

So my question is: Can anyone who has actually used either or both these sites tell us something about what they are and what they are for, and, if they are blog hosting sites, how they compare with other such sites like WordPress or Blogger?

 

 

It’s a good thing that no one is reading this

… so why do I bother to write it?

Pointless, my favourite TV show

Pointless, my favourite TV show

It seems that when I post a link to a blog post on Facebook lots of people comment on Facebook (never on the blog itself) and haven’t read the post anyway. It sometimes worried me and made me think sometimes that blogging was a pointless activity.

Here was I taking all this trouble to write something, but nobody was reading it. And anyway the people whose opinions I was seeking never responded because Facebook never showed it to them. Facebook’s algorithms seem pretty pointless too. I have something like 470 friends on FB, and Facebook only shows me stuff from about 15 of them. I become friends with someone on FB, and Facebook shows me their posts for 3 days and then stops. So what’s the point?

But then I read this (from a link from Twitter), and thought I’d better stop worrying about it Why it’s a very good sign that people don’t read your content:

When I started out as a blogger, I had no idea what I was doing. I was working so hard, and creating content that was pretty darn good. And yet, nobody was reading my posts, commenting, or sharing. I was frustrated.

Pointless-3But if it’s all pointless anyway, what does it matter?

As that article points (oops!) out, it doesn’t matter whether people read it or not, so why bother to try to write anything coherent when no one is going to read it anyway just random stream of consciousness stuff will do and writing a blog post will be like a dog scratching itself to get rid of flees but why is my doing still scratching himself when I just put Frontline tick stuff on him three days ago? Ah, Frontline there’s a brand, and brands are the most important thing nowadays. Content is nothing, brands are all. I’ve seen web sites that ask you what you’re interested in and one of the important things to be interested in is brands not brands of anything — cars, shampoo, antitick stuff for dogs it doesn’t matter the important thing is brands. Not art literature books or anything just brands.

TelkomQuotaActually I haven’t been reading many links on Facebook myself lately either. I “like” it or not based on the headline, because if I go to the article itself this will happen –>

And waiting for web pages to load becomes like watching paint dry. Telkom does have a thing where you can buy more bandwidth and speed it up again, but it hasn’t been working for a week now, which makes Telkom Internet pretty pointless too.

So I’m not reading your content and you’re not reading my content, but that’s a good thing, according to the quoted article, which I bet you haven’t read either.

And so life is reduced to pointless click bait.

 

A who’s who of writers and scurrilous gossip column

Palimpsest: A MemoirPalimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure why I took this book out of the library. I sometimes find that I like literary biographies of authors more than the books they wrote, and I’ve never read any books by Gore Vidal.

After reading this one, I’m still not sure if I’ll read any others, but I found this one quite interesting, and in many places, especially the earlier part, witty and humorous. As the title suggests, he jumps backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing over what he has already written, and sometimes the chronology is a little confusing, especially when discussing people he had known for a long time.

As a writer he met lots of other writers, and the book is a cross between a literary who’s who and a scurrilous gossip column. On the whole, however, he didn’t much like the company of other writers, even though he had met quite a lot of them, and he seems to have had fallings out with those he knew quite well, among whom were Tennessee Williams the playwright and Truman Capote the novelist. I was most interested in what he said about Beat Generation writers, as I have been particularly interested in them, and he knew Allen Ginsberg quite well, and had met some of the others, including Jack Kerouac, in whose book The Subterraneans he appeared as Arial Lavalina.

There is also quite a lot of political gossip, which throws an interesting light on American politics in the early 1960s. Vidal and Jackie Kennedy Onassis shared a common stepfather, whom both of their mothers had married for his money. Vidal himself even stood (or ran) for election at the time that Jack Kennedy was running for President, though he did not have a high opinion of most of the other members of the Kennedy administration, or of Kennedy himself, whom he regarded as a warmonger.

Concerning his own life, Vidal hated his mother, and had only one true love, Jimmy Trimble, whom he met at school, and they were lovers from the age of 12 until the age of 19, when Jimmy Trimble was killed in the Second World War. Thereafter Vidal had a preference for casual anonymous sex, a preference which, he says, he shared with Jack Kennedy, and thought sex was inimical to friendship. He did have a lifelong companion, but according to Vidal their relationship was premissed on “no sex”.

Vidal was also involved in film and television, and wrote several plays, some for television, some for the stage, and he also wrote the screenplay for several films. As a result quite a lot of his personal reminiscences involve actors, directors and producers in the film industry, and it is only his acerbic wit that keeps the parts of his book that deals with them from being a standard celeb gossip column.

An enjoyable read, and quite illuminating, but I’m still not sure if I’ll try to read any of his fiction.

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Youth and exile: writing a memoir

Having discovered (with a little help from my friends) where WordPress had hidden its old user-friendly editor, I’m posting this here rather than in my old Notes from Underground blog.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed this book:

YouthYouth by J.M. Coetzee My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can read my review here.

There I noted that Coetzee’s book was almost the story of my life, and mentioned some of the possibly interesting bits that he had left out, and someone left a comment to the effect that if I wrote my own version of the story, he would definitely buy it.

It’s a bit risky to start writing a book on the strength of one promise to buy it, but that’s exactly what I’m doing, with a provisional title of Youth and exile. You could say that my review of Coetzee’s book also contains the outline or summary of my own.

I’m also writing it using a tool I haven’t used before — Papel.

Papel is a kind of writer’s editor, where you can write stuff as you feel inspired to do, then move it around and link it later, and finally pull it into a word processor for polishing. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, things go quickly, and, as promised, it lets you just write, and leave the sorting, formatting and arranging for later. I find that creative writing goes better when you separate the writing and the editing processes, and Papel does that rather well.

Unlike Coetzee, I won’t be writing a fictionalised account. That would be too difficult, but it does entail certain limitations. Because some of the other people mentioned in my story are still living, and might possibly even read it, one cannot go into all the details of personal relationships that Coetzee does, even if only from the protagonist’s point of view.

But, Dana Ames, if you are reading this, and get impatient for me to finish it, you can always have a go at my fiction set in the immediately preceding period. You can find more about it here:

Of Wheels and WitchesOf Wheels and Witches by Stephen Hayes

or here.

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Apartheid and racism in children’s literature

A couple of years ago I reviewed a book on Apartheid and racism in children’s literature, and commented on how I had tried to deal with that theme in a book I had written, Of wheels and witches.

wheelscovSince my book has now been published, I thought it might be good to link it with the blog post that deals with how I tried to deal with those themes in writing it. If you’re interested in reading it, you can get a free 20% sample at Smashwords, with the option of downloading the whole thing if you haven’t already been bored by it.

There is at least one review of it on Good Reads here, and I hope others may be moved to post reviews of it there or elsewhere, either before or after reading the linked post on apartheid in children’s literature.

There’s one other thing.

Good Reads has lists of books of various types, and there didn’t seem to be any list for children’s or young adult books set in southern Africa, so I created such a list, and added this and a couple of other books to it. Please feel free to add more books to the list, and to vote for this book if you liked it, or for others in that category that you have liked. Please add it to any other lists on Good Reads that you think it may belong to.

 

Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian

Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian: Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.

I write like WHO?

I think I’ve tried this before, but the previous time I tried it with text from my journal. This time I thought I would try it with some text from a novel.

I write like
George Orwell

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!


That was with fairly straightforward text.

With more action oriented text, it said I wrote like Harry Harrison (who’s he?) or James Joyce.

Well, let’s try with another sample, also action oriented. Again it says that I wrote like James Joyce. Well, I suppose it’s at least consistent.

Third time lucky. A bit more pedestrian this time, the opening paragraphs, setting the scene. So what does it say?

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

OK, scratch George Orwell and Harry Harrison, james Joyce it is. Stay us wherefore in our search for tighteousness, O Sustainer!

That, in case anyone didn’t recognize it, is a quote from Finnegan’s wake

Still, I’m not sure it’s a compliment. I ploughed my way through Ulysses a couple of years ago, and one of my English profs told an honours student not to read it, as it would blunt his critical faculties. But the English department thought that English literature began and ended with D.H. Lawrence, with just one exception, one of their own number, Cake Manson, who was indubitably the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. Even Harry Harrison was easier to find with a Google search than Cake Manson.

Perhaps I should send my unpublished novel to Joyce’s publishers, and see if they are impressed.

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