On the Feast of Stephen

Today is Saint Stephen's day. As a teaser and a technology test for the readings and tellings I will be doing next year, I have recorded a little Stephen's day treat: my short story, Good King Wenceslas.

I have a slight head cold, so my accent is a little posher than usual, but don't let that bother you. I'm also trying out different editing software and some fancy camera features. Try to ignore the artefacts that arise from this. If necessary, shut your eyes.


Planning is a waste of time

:: Edit 2012-09-07 ::

I would love to know why this essay gets so many hits still. Any visitors care to comment?

:: end of edit ::

I have been asked to justify a remark I tweeted recently, and farbeit from me to refuse an excuse to blog, here goes:

I stated that "Planning is the worst waste of time ever invented". Some people think that this is a little unfair, but it may be worth stating that this comes from the mouth of a trained and experienced project-manager, who has worked in the highly regulated and highly documented world of clinical trials, who today works in the entirely unregulated though equally documented world of literary fiction.

In project management, Project Plans exist for one reason and one reason only: to convince those with the money to part with it, and fund the project.

In warfare, battle plans exist for one reason and one reason only: to dispose your troops on the field in such a way that they will cause as much difficulty to the enemy as possible. In modern warfare, there are no battle plans, since modern warfare has a much more civilized aim, namely to bring every confrontation to as swift a conclusion as possible.

Planning whose purpose is to decide what to do, and in what order, is strictly for novices - and a necessary part of the learning process.

(Even the logistics of the quantity surveyor are concerned with satisfying a consensus as to requirements, such that all parties submitting a tender will base their prices on the same set of materials; however when it comes to undertaking construction, the actual materials purchased and consumed will not be identical to the quantities specified by the QS.)

"Whenever a truly complex and difficult situation presents itself, the people with the money will always want quantification of the cost and the time needed to deal with it."

This is axiomatic in so many fields of endeavour today that a whole consultancy industry has grown up around the practice and principles of quantification before the fact. The promise of such quantification is to tell you exactly what is needed in terms of time and materials, and hence in terms of money, before you commit to beginning activity.

But any project is (as the etymology implies) an act of anticipation - of throwing yourself into the future. And it is akin to packing for a family holiday. Often akin to packing for a family holiday in the north of England.

You have a fixed, limited amount of space in the car, and you can be certain of some of your needs (like a change of underwear), but much, much less certain of your other needs, especially in terms of outer clothing. If every seat is occupied, is it even possible for everyone to bring everything he needs, let alone everything he might need.

Now most people, very sensibly, don't sit around a whiteboard brainstorming, before producing a twenty-page risk analysis, and a detailed list of items that each person is bringing ranked in order of priority-by-volume.

There are a number of reasons why they don't do this, but the primary reason is that it is not necessary. The fundamental reason for why it is not necessary is the same in every situation where risk is quantified and qualified, whether formally or otherwise:

The only future events likely to cause real difficulties are those that are impossible to anticipate.

By definition, you haven't thought of them in advance, and have done nothing to mitigate them. Any risks that you are capable of anticipating, you will already have acted to reduce. In real world project management, an "emergency fund" is set aside and ringfenced 'for the unexpected only'. These are the future events that test the success of any undertaking, and on which hang the success.

That is why a successful project depends much more on the experience of the people involved than on the thoroughness of the planning.

This doesn't - or shouldn't - turn preparation for future events into a dark art. If anything, it should turn it into an educational experience. Wherever possible, when mounting a project, the person with the main responsibility should look to involve people of varying levels of experience, so that all can learn both from eachother, and from any novel or unanticipated incidents or accidents that occur. As such, you continuously create people with the skills and experience necessary for future undertakings.

Well all have an extraordinary ability to create stories about future events, telling them to ourselves, in order to better prepare both for the expected and the unexpected. The storytelling urge that drives so many people to write fiction is a natural extension, sandbox and playground for this, our most important survival tool.

This is why when I do project mentoring (which I still do from time to time), I encourage all members of the project team to sit down somewhere comfortable, and tell eachother the story of the project as if they were telling a bedtime fairytale.


I really can turn almost anything into a discussion of storytelling.


The Poet Trap

When an author says to me:

"The main character in my next book is a Physicist at CERN; the problem is: I don't know anything about the physics that is done at CERN,"

You can imagine the alarm bells ring. A persistent member of the "Writing Advice Top 10" is Write about what you know. It is, this good advice notwithstanding, my observation that a writer with sufficient skill can convince his readers that a character is a genuine nuclear physicist even though the writer has even less knowledge than, for example, a press officer for British Nuclear Power.

How do you convince the reader? You only need go so far as to say that your character is a physicist and holds a senior position at CERN and other characters treat him as if this is so. The writer can spoof all kinds of skills and expertise in this way, because the reader is never going to challenge him on it, for purely practical reasons.

A writer can go so far as to invent a character who is himself a far more talented and celebrated author than his creator. How? By just saying so. No reader is going to ask to read the character's books. In the same way, the writer can invent a demon violinist or the greatest composer the world has ever seen. To convince the reader all he has to do is convey the experience of listening to the music to the reader, or (more detached still), describe the consequences of listening to it; crowds of adoring fans, squaddies and schoolteachers in tears, and whatnot.

I admit that the last couple of examples require a certain skill. But this is a skill in writing, a skill that I tend to assume any writer is pursuing.

The poet, however, is a trap.

It is the very nature of poetry that the experience of poetry can only be communicated by the poetry itself. Go on, find someone who has never heard the 18th Sonnet, and try to convey the feelings it evokes without using either any words or any images from it.

I think there are very few fictional poets for exactly this reason. You have to be an outstanding poet to write a poet character because there is neither any excuse for giving no examples, nor any way to convince the reader that the character is a poet other than by showing his work. Racine managed it. Hugo managed it*. It took giants of technique and inspiration to convince readers that their characters were passable poets. Perhaps the most internationally famous example is the character of Cyrano de Bergerac in the play by Rostand. Not that Rostand's work is extraordinary - but since it is written entirely in rhyming couplets, we can easily accept that both writer and character are competent at poetry.

It even takes a certain skill to write bad, mediocre or otherwise indifferent poetry. It did occur to me that you might have some other character remark:

"The say the fellow is the greatest poet of his generation but if he is he's damn discreet about it. I've yet to hear so much as a troche."

However I fear all this will do is whet the reader's appetite all the more. Even if the damn poet is the victim (i.e. already dead at the start), his Eratian credentials still have to be established somehow.

I suppose the canniest author might make a selection of contemporary anonymous poetry and claim it as the work of his fictional character. That's the kind of devious thinking that you need from an editor, in any case.

* At least, I'm pretty sure he did. But I can't find the reference and it's making me crazy. Please let me know if you know which character I'm thinking of. Please.


"What King?" — "Any king!"

In typical self-deprecating style, Damon Courtney writes to ask me about my sloppy editing of his capitalizations, as follows:

What are the rules on capitalization when someone refers to someone else not by their name but by some other name? Such as:

"Yes, Master."


"Yes, My Dear."

Somewhere in my mind I want to capitalize those cases, but I'm not sure if that's right. You didn't note them in your copyedit, but there are some places I didn't do that, and you didn't note those either. So, either it doesn't matter, or I'm doing it wrong one way or the other.

Notice that it doesn't occur to Damon that I might have missed an error or (even worse) an inconsistency. Leaving aside the matter of undue deference to the editor, my reply is below. Check out my awesome UK punctuation mojo in the quotations. If there is clamour, I might blog about that later.

It doesn't really matter all that much, because it's almost impossible to infer a consistent set of rules for capitalization in English. If you go back to the 1930s, you'll find that anything that can defensibly be called a proper noun gets capitalized, and anything else isn't. The classic example is:

"Did you hear that? He called her 'darling'."


"Since it's what they call one-another, we all call them Darling and Dearest."

The idea is that in the first, we are just referring to a term of endearment, whereas in the second, we are declaring common assent to naming. Today, capitalization of titles, especially "honorifics" (commonly assented but not always formal or legal titles) is very varied. I'm reminded of the Buddhist schoolteacher who remarked "Many call me master but none call me Master.".

In your second example, you should capitalize in either of two cases: "My Dear" is the only form of address used by the speaker to his interlocutor, OR "My Dear" is being used in a special way in this single instance, for instance as sarcasm.

Bear in mind that the strict 1930's rule takes no account of the relationship between the people, only of the logic, hence:

"Yes Master."


"Yes, O my master."

The former is a direct address, hence Master is proper. The latter is a description of the relationship hence master is just an adjective. Here's another case that is at once revealing and confusing:

"We must tell the King at once!"

"What King?" / "Which king?"

"Any king."

This is logical, but looks daft on the page. Sometimes how it looks on the page is the only solution.

This conclusion is an example of The New Model in action. Clarity in transmission from writer to reader is paramount, and visual confusion caused by an impression of inconsistency becomes noise, and distracts the reader from the effect that the writer intended.


Roleplaying and Storytelling

Roleplaying and storytelling are not the same, and should not be confused.

I have been playing a lot of Skyrim. Skyrim is one of those cultural phenomena that many people will dismiss as "just another computer game" in the same way that some British folks dismiss Dr Who as "just another TV SF series" or War and Peace as "just another lengthy Russian classic".

Skyrim is a big, diverse world, beautiful and curious; an amazing achievement that builds on the lessons of Morrowind and Oblivion (previous titles in the "The Elder Scrolls" (TES) series) by taking a long hard look at the work done by the vast modding community* and a good hard look at the success of the accomplished but troubled Gothic series that has dwelt in the shadow of TES, but held its own through quality and reliability.

Even with the work that was done to make Skyrim such a visually pleasing and amazing place, many of the first mods deal with making it even more visually stunning. The first mod I downloaded was a new, high resolution night sky. OMGIFOS!

Playing Skyrim is a matter of wandering around, talking to folks, creeping into dark caves, investigating mountaintops and getting quested. Players of "tabletop" rpgs like AD&D will know that when you speak to the innkeeper, he'll give you some bit of rumor or gossip, you'll go check it out and end up embroiled in a plot or saving someone's kidnapped spouse/child or trying to get your hands on a big pile of gold (GP) or enough experience (XP) to level your character. This is called getting quested. Getting quested can be a blessing or a curse. In the best cases, it is both. Getting quested is essential for roleplaying because it gives you an objective. Once you have an objective, it is up to you to decide how you intend to fulfil it.

Skyrim's creators went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities to get quested, and plenty of quests of all different sizes and shapes. And these quests can all be placed on a scale which has at one end "getting railroaded" and at the other "vague curiosity". Thankfully, the "Main Quest" seldom railroads, once you get over the initial irritation of being the unique chosen one with special blood. I happen to hate that kind of thing, but there are opportunities to pick sides and make moral choices in the main quest. That's amazingly impressive, even to the limited extent that it has been done.

One of the worst offenders for railroading is the Thieves Guild main quest. (Some people say the thieves' guild doesn't even exist…) This quest line is daft. A balanced character would find some of the tasks a little tricky, but my character is a stealth sniper. For the first 30 levels I did almost nothing other than sneak and shoot. The tasks were a walk in the park for me, and after completing these "little errands", the thieves promptly insisted that I become guild master. This actively pissed me off. Because I'm roleplaying in a way that only TES makes possible: I decided in advance what sort of person Clothilde would be, and I make decisions based on that. Since you can do that in TES, and more so in Skyrim than any other game I have ever known, it is very disappointing indeed how often you can't refuse an appointment (or even a title), or change your mind once you set off on a mission. I really hope there's a modder out there with plans to change quest options so that you can back out if you decide you don't like the direction a quest is taking.

I suspect that some (definitely not all) of the quest designers genuinely think that the only choice that players will make is between the three standing stones at the start of the game (where you decide initially - the choice can be refined or made again later - on your broad playing style, between fighter, rogue or mage), and once that choice is made you'll follow every quest you get hit with out of curiosity for the unfolding story. Those quest designers (House of Horrors anyone?) need to be hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and then have it pointed out to them that Skyrim is an RPG environment. Compare and contrast with Assassin's Creed.

In AC, you follow a story - it's explicit in the scenario design that there is only one path; all presented objectives have to be met, and your only choices are in the fine details - concealed blade or throw him off the roof? AC is addictive because (like Skyrim) it is beautiful, but also, unlike Skyrim, because it has a single, highly compelling, storyline, and you keep playing because you want to follow the twists and turns of the plot. In AC you are reading a thriller. In Skyrim you are playing AD&D.

The next (techno)logical step is TES played in cooperation. Not massively multiplayer, but 4 to 6 players in a cooperative party, getting quested the way you do in AD&D. And, therefore, being able to build quests. This, we already can, though it is tricky and very time consuming (rather more than when you play tabletop).

My verdict for Skyrim? It started out awesome, and once the modders have had a couple of years with it, it will be the most complete roleplaying environment ever seen outside of the imagination of a party of experienced AD&D players.

Roleplaying is the undervalued branch of creative play. Everyone values as "culture" books, theatre, film; storytelling has been largely lost, and roleplaying is seen as something even less cultural, even more ephemeral. I think, however, that the best culture is ephemeral, because the best culture is created for, and created before, a live audience. Just as the script of a play is not the play, so the book of a story is not the story. It is natural and right and special and both humanly and culturally affirming to get together and roleplay - make up a story, a scenario, together. With Skyrim, computer gaming has taken another big step towards facilitating cultural activity instead of distracting from it.

* modding is creating new content for an existing game. For free.

Online Story Telling

I keep harping on to writers about the importance of live storytelling and how much I love doing it, until one of them challenged me to tell some stories aloud and stick them on Youtube. From January, I'm going to do two, every month. I have enough material of my own for a lifetime or two, but it would be much more fun to tell some of your stories.

Here's the catch: this is telling, not reading. I like to learn a story, so that I can tell it aloud. That isn't learning the words, but learning the story, and letting the words look after themselves.

I'm taking submissions as of now. Bear in mind that your story need not be kept to any strict length, as I will do that when I tell the story - I'll keep most of them to twenty to thirty minutes, but I'm quite happy to do short serials too. I'll also be looking out for guest tellers, every couple of months or so, so let me know if you're interested in telling your (or someone else's) story.


TES Fanfic: here it is.

I actually wrote this before I wrote yesterday's blog post, which is why it sounded like the fanfic was in the post. Sorry if that disappointed anyone.


Diary Entry #1:

Everything happened so fast the last few hours. Yesterday, I got paid employment carrying supplies over the mountains. I thought it was either smuggling or bringing secret military supplies to an outpost or something, because the guy who hired me was a thief or some other sort of petty criminal … which … I suppose … is what I am, too.

We got ambushed just below the tree-line. After that things got crazy. Executions, Dragons, escape.

To stand where I am standing today, I killed eleven men. Two Imperial guards. The rest were like you, at my feet. Bandits.

The first bandit I met, I tried to just walk away. Leave well alone. He came after me with his weapon in his hand. I was nearly killed. Just before that, I had met the first person I saw since my escape. Friendly hunter. He sold me some food. I was not ready to fight. But I did. That fight, it got my hunting spirit roused. I ran up the mountain, and I surprised two more bandits. I didn't try to be friendly this time. The third one was on top of a ruined tower. I shot him and he fell. I don't know if my arrow killed him or the fall. I didn’t stay to find out. I wanted to know what was at the top.

At the top was a sort of ancient temple. I crept around, until you spotted me. You didn’t say anything. You just shot me in the arm. It hurt.

This morning, you had something. You had a sort of life. You had your two friends who came to defend you; you had this place, up here in the snow. All this beauty even thought the cold will kill you if it can. You had your own belongings, your freedom, your life.

I killed your two companions. This was not easy, especially with you shooting at me whenever you got the chance. One of your arrows went through my boot. Grazed the arch of my foot. I nearly fell.

When your second friend, the big elf, died, I turned around. There was a block of fallen stone between us. Looked like a dragon head. But you were on a ledge, in front of a buttress. You had nowhere to run and hide. I dropped my sword and ax, and took my bow off my back. Lucky it was undamaged. My arrows were less lucky, but I had five or six good ones.

I shot you. I think you were surprised. It hit you in the gut, which is not where I was aiming but I was hampered by the rock that protected me from your arrows.

Why didn’t you run? You saw your two friends die. You got shot. You could have run away. I would have let you go. You kept shooting... slower. I shot you again. This time your armour did not slow it down. It looks like it killed you right away.

I wanted to ask you why didn't you run. I wanted to ask you “WHO ARE YOU?” It was too late.

You still look angry, even with your eyes dead. You must have been beautiful, once. Big strong Nord girl. I was curious. I didn't come here to kill you.

Well, the snowstorm it is clearing a little. So I sit you up against the wall, on your ledge so badly chosen to fight from. You can watch the view, so beautiful, while your blood freezes. So cold. I kiss you goodnight, Nord bandit woman. Your lips are cold already.

I say to myself: “I will hide, rather than kill; whenever I can, I will go by unseen.”

[Clothilde (left) watched by her faithful huscarl Lydia]
* * *

Barely half an hour later, I was killing again, back in the rush of the hunt, my blood hot with joy. I think I may be a bad person.


For the TES Fans. I try my hand at FanFic

I got Skyrim installed yesterday. It runs really well on my three-year-old upper-mid-end system if I keep anisotropic down to 2 or 0. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, maybe the rest isn't for you.

I played Oblivion for the immersion, which after 5 years of modding is amazingly deep and detailed. In Blivvy I generally began with a character backstory, so I could develop a playing style that would be different each time. In Skyrim, I've gone back to my preferred style for the first playthrough. By nature I'm bookish, an alchemist, cook, trader, smith. In combat I'm a sniper. I like to stay hidden and take my enemy by surprise.

So I rolled up a young-ish Breton woman. I find it very hard to play male characters in 1st person RPG. I don't really know why, but I think it has something to do with the archetypes. The boys are all Alpha Males or Alpha Male wannabes, it's all about superiority for them. I find myself not caring about what happens to them. Each time I played a male in Blivvy I abandoned the character the first time he died.

My Breton woman is called Clothilde, and she has a strong French accent. I don't show her accent in the writing; just a few bits of odd diction. I think she speaks and writes well in several languages, so she knows how to spell. I worked out a lengthy and detailed backstory for her, and then began to play.

Skyrim is pretty good. There are a few niggles in the gameplay and quite a few minor glitches that I suspect will be sorted out by patching over the next few weeks. The influence of the Gothic series is evident everywhere you look, both visually and in gameplay - even in the design of dungeons. I also utterly utterly hate scenarios where "YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE" or "YOU ARE THE LAST REMAINING…" but I got around this by having a character who is a misfit, and who rather dislikes all this too.

When I saved last night, she was standing on top of High Hrothgar with her recently appointed Huscarl, Lydia,  having been taught some new tricks by the old men of the mountain. I imagined her turning to Lydia and saying

"What the fuck? I feel like a total fraud. An interloper. Three days ago I was a petty criminal, and a smuggler. I was saved from execution by accident, and I have killed more than ten people, human beings, in the last two days. Now some guy I met yesterday morning gives me a Title! And a retainer! And these old guys up here in the cold with their all mystical attitude are acting all impressed because I got some special power. It is stupid. I want a drink. Let's go get drunk."

Lydia is a Nord, and a simple, plain, loyal warrior. I'm pretty sure she didn't listen to most of that. I rekon she just heard the last two sentences. She'd reply:

"Okay. We passed an inn on the way here. Just before all those damn stairs."

… more tomorrow.


Benefits of staying off the path

Here's an argument for educational reform that even a politician can understand:

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged, memorably framed by Edison I think, that we don't know a millionth of one percent about anything. I assume that most people would agree that the sum of human knowledge is pretty big. Too big, in fact, for any one person to know, let alone understand, all of it. Indeed we frequently choose to approach a problem or project by collecting a team of people each of whom brings different knowledge and expertise, so that we may be sure that we have all the knowledge required to address the problem.

If this technique is so effective — and it is — then our education system should prepare for it. And, I hear the dear politicians protest proudly, it does. Up to age shmeu everyone learns the basics, and then each child gradually specializes until by age smee they are ready to enter higher education fully prepared for their narrow specialization that will make them such a valuable contributor in the future.

This is a really strong argument when you know exactly what the future holds. There have been times in the past where we (almost) have. Those times are looooooong ago now, and getting ever more distant and an ever faster rate as Moore's Law drives us ever faster into the future.

If the next generations are to be ready to face this unknown (and I suspect, unknowable) future, then we need to ensure that their range of knowledge is as diverse as possible, and furthermore, their range of approaches, ways of thinking, is as broad as possible. (Quick! Everyone out of the box!)

Diversifying their range of knowledge is the bit that I think the politicians can handle. We can tell them about it without their needing too much hand-holding. It goes as follows:

If you impose a national curriculum, that every child must follow up to age shmeu, (even if it then diversifies into specializations that are also imposed at a national level) then the greatest possible sum of all their knowledge is barely greater than the knowledge of one child. I understand that you want equality of opportunity and that ensuring that desire means assuring that the same level  of education is available to every child, but it does not mean that the same education should be given to every child. Supposing you defined 10 different national curricula, and distributed them at random around the country. You would increase by an order of magnitude the total knowledge of your nation. It follows that if there were 100, 1000 curricula, you add two, three more orders of magnitude.

Are you out of your mind? 1000 different curricula?

Here's the part that will make the politicians sad: education has to be disestablished. Disestablishment is the separation of any institution from the institution of the state. In other words, you remove all Government control, and indeed most central control from education. Personally I think that individual teachers should set the curricula of their own classes and teach it as they choose. Naturally this makes comparative testing (competition) invalid. Individual teachers might use examination as a means of tracking progress, but a national exam "at the end" is nonsense. The politicians panic. "How can we prove that everyone is getting the same level of education?" they scream in horror. "Are you doing that now?" is all I can answer.

Ensuring that every child gets the same opportunity becomes a very different process. It would require inspectors who would check classroom by classroom, if need be, child by child, to observe that education is happening. The children are learning. Developing their ability to think, to express themselves, to engage with one another and to engage with the problems that they face in their daily lives, and some of them, with the problems of the wider world.

The validity of this model of education is that it seeks to prepare for the unknown future, by maximizing diversity. Compare with validating an education on the basis of how it prepares children for today, which is what politically motivated education does. Education is currently conceived, in most countries, on the basis that you can measure the progress of children's education through identical examination, and that you can measure the success of an education by how easily each school leaver gets a place in University or lands his first job. To call this a rather narrow view is to be very British about it.

Surely an education should be judged on its ability to prepare you (inasmuch as this is even possible) for your life.

So education needs to be free, not equal. So it needs to be off the path, as far from straight and narrow as possible.


Don't even look for a path

Outside of crime and sin, what else does the straight and narrow involve?

It implies that a virtuous life is one that is strictly restricted to a single course, and a single goal. It implies that you shouldn't so much as look at the landscape as you go by for fear of curiosity leading you off the path. It implies that life is about having a goal, and working tirelessly, steadily, towards it.

I'll tell you, in case you haven't already worked it out for yourself, what lies at the end of the road of life:


Whichever way you look at it, and whatever you may believe about what does, or does not, come after, death is the point that you can't see past.

The injunction to stay on the path means something else, as well, therefore. It means "do as you are told"; "don't think for yourself"; "don't think outside the box"; "don't try to change what you are"; "don't try to learn for yourself".

By sticking to the straight and narrow you accept your lot in life, as defined by others. You permit yourself to be channelled into blinkered conformity, and because you only go forward (for fear of being left behind, quite often) and keep your eyes on that distant goal that all to soon you recognize as the end of the road, you never discover your own potential.

If you leave the path, you soon discover that you have a whole lot to learn. Off the path, there is so much to learn that noone even knows 1 millionth of 1 millionth of it. And the experience of two different people off the path can be so different that their views seldom coincide. But get this: there isn't only one straight and narrow. Different societies, tribes, religions, at different times and in different places define different ruts, but since all those paths lead from the same place to the same place (birth to death, if you like), those paths are all parallel. They never coincide at all.

How surprising is it that the differences between fundamentalist Moslims and fundamentalist Christians are irreconcilable. The key word is fundamentalist. Fundies always insist on the straight and narrow - they know that a little knowledge from off the path is all you need to discover freedom.

For me, what this is all about is two things: freedom and individuality. The straight and narrow is often defended by the "ideal" of equality. But I'm opposed to equality wherever it doesn't promote freedom. Gender equality is a perfect example of this. There are differences between all men and all women. I know this especially well as a man raised to try to think like a woman. The differences mean that equality is as meaningless as competition. Gender freedom is defined as the removal of all obstacles to self determination that are imposed on the grounds of gender. It's a kind of "right to try". My maternal grandfather believed that women should not even try to drive a car. That is restricting gender freedom. Gender freedom is ensuring that men and women can try to do the same things, without restriction or prejudice, and that each individual be judged (if need be) on the results.

If there is a current world financial crisis, if there is a population crisis, if there is an environmental crisis — I say "if" because there's always some sort of problem to overcome, and it really doesn't matter if these current media-sexy threats are true or not (though there are compelling reasons to think so) — then they will not be solved by conformity. Straight and narrow thinking has lead to all three. Off the path thinking will solve them.

When you go off the path, you discover, you learn, and you become different. Many people fear those who are different (most people fear those who are incomprehensible), and many people fear becoming different. This is understandable, but harmful. There are people in the world who are pursuing a dream of anti-gravity that uses gyroscopes and perpetual motion. There are people pursuing room-temperature (cold) fusion. They may be incomprehensible and uncomprehending crackpots, but they are off the path; they may not be expanding human knowledge, but they are broadening our culture. Culture needs breadth, if we are to survive. We need our crackpots and charlatans. We need our poets, artists and mystics. We need our free thinkers and yes, we need our lunatics. Whether they like it or not, they are exploring the extremes of what it means to be human.


Screw the straight-and-narrow, I say!

The injunction to STAY ON THE PATH is one of those literary conceits that we take for granted. But all sorts of aspects of this idea annoy the hell out of me.

It is developed from an idea formed in the early Christian church which supposed that temptation, sin and wickedness were all around, but that if you keep your mind focussed on the attainment of a state of grace, and hence unity with God, you would be free from temptation, sin, and wickedness.

This allowed the Christians to introduce to our culture the idea that remains to this day: that everyone is subject to constant temptation; that it is difficult for everyone to resist, and that therefore those who resist are strong and virtuous, while those who do not are weak and wicked.

If your aim is to help others to avoid wickedness (however you may wish to define it), this is surely a valuable idea; but it is fundamentally wrong-headed. It assumes that all people are basically the same; that all have the same priorities, the same desires, and that all would, if they could, aspire to the same lifestyle, aspire to the same set of virtues. We see the consequences of this today: a huge range of behaviours are diagnosed (via the painfully dichotomous DSM) as illnesses – to be cured, treated or controlled – through the general acceptance by the mental health profession that someone who is excessively different will suffer as a result of his difference. I can (thoroughly unfairly) sum this up by the ruthlessly simplistic statement that "conformity is directly proportional to happiness".

Weirdly, the evidence is against this. You can see it for yourself, looking at crime, and criminal lifestyles in general. The crimes that I like to focus people's attention on are very petty theft (taking a pen home from the office) and petty fraud (exaggerating on an insurance claim form). It so happens that I can't do either of these (though I may have been capable of the former in the past). Many, many people have done one or the other or both. I know someone who happily takes apples from his neighbour's tree (for which he has to reach over the fence), but would never take leeks from his neighbour's vegetable patch (even though they are physically more accessible).

What leads people to choose to do some of these things but not others? I encounter two explanations. Sometimes they are kept distinct, sometimes they are combined. I call them "infantile parent" and "pragmatic parent" (neither of these terms is intended judgementally – I don't claim either is good or bad, right or wrong). Infantile Parent claims that people dare to commit petty crimes in proportion to their expectation of being caught or found out. Pragmatic Parent claims that people casually commit petty crimes in proportion to the harm they estimate is done. This equates to the advice always to carry a poor man's wallet.*

I suspect that in terms of what people will permit themselves, there is a very broad range, and the decision to do what is commonly agreed as wrong is taken on the spot, and takes account of an equally broad range of factors. After all, the same people who commit those acts of very petty theft and petty fraud, are those who have publicly declared their support for the illegality of theft and fraud.

So we are black and white in our public declarations, but shades of grey in our actual behaviours. How like marriage…

I'm not capable (for all sorts of reasons - some of which may be very obscure) of infidelity. But many many people apparently are. (To such an extent that Marital Fidelity probably ought to be defined as a personality disorder in the DSM.) People who declare, publicly, their intent to faithfulness.

So the idea of the straight and narrow has forced a paradox whereby everyone believes that they must declare that certain things are wrong, even while doing them. I wonder if this is the origin of guilt. I don't know, as it's an emotion that I know by sight and reputation only.

I don't believe that our capacity for understanding others has (oh, all right) evolved in order for us to try to set it aside in favour of rules that we all agree are right, but by which we cannot abide. I believe that our capacity for understanding others enables (many, possibly most of) us to consider the social consequences of each of our actions, and choose freely the social scale of our action (self / immediate family / extended family / close friends / extended network of friends / geographical community / society / nation / the whole of mankind / the planet  (this list is not exhaustive)). Viewed from the point of view of the individual's expected consequences for whichever is his favoured social scale, there is no such thing as crime… though there may still be such a thing as evil.

The injunction at the top of the page in fact becomes an injunction to resist the temptation to favour a social scale below that of the tribe.

(more to follow – an explanation of the picture…)


* (In case you haven't come across this, I remember once being advised never to carry my money in an expensive wallet, in case I lost it. Supposedly, whoever picks it up will look inside, and if they find some cash, they'll take it, before returning the wallet. But the decision as to how much cash they take depends on a value judgement of both how much cash there is, and how rich they think you are. If you have an expensive wallet, and there's only a few dollars in it, chances are they'll not take anything. I you have an expensive wallet and there's 500 dollars in it, they'll take the lot, but still return the wallet. If you have a cheap looking wallet and there is only a few dollars, they'll take them, but if there's a lot of money they'll think twice about depriving you of it. 

I'm not sure how much credence to give this. After all, the chances of the wallet being picked up by someone less sensitive than this are probably pretty high. One of my schoolteachers kept a typewritten note in his wallet that said "anyone who finds this can keep the cash if they return the rest".)


Negotiation - how I first learned to be a human being

"Are you sure you know the way?" she asked me.

I stood in thought. This was one of the big mysteries of the adult brain — or so I thought — beyond yes and no. Shortly before, she had asked me if I knew the way to room 88. I did know the way, and at (I guess) age 12 or so, that was all there was, so I said so:

"Sure? You asked me if I knew the way, and I said yes. That's all there is. I know, or I don't know. I don't know anything about 'sure'."

She gave me one of those long, faraway stares that adults do when you give them an answer that bears no relation to the expected "yes" or "no". Scratch that – one of those looks that everyone gives me all the time. As far as I was concerned, she started it, by going beyond "yes" or "no" in the first place.

"So you're not so sure, huh?" I used to think this was trying to convince the child he must be in the wrong because he's a child. I have sometimes caught myself doing that to my own children, so other people must do it too, right? Sometimes though, I think it's just taking refuge in a familiar place: the child is getting pedantic, so he must be trying to distract from his lack of certainty.


"Are you sure you won't have another biscuit?"

I know that one mustn't get snippy with well-meaning elderly aunts. Although I still find this one a trial, I at least know what I'm supposed to do here. Aged 8 or 9 this time, the utterly baffling back-and-forth over who should do what for whom was a source of annoyance when I had to observe it in others and of acute personal discomfort when I got caught up in it myself.


It wasn't until I had children of my own that I learn just how relative yes and no really are. To children, the parent's "no" means something like "not until next time you ask me" or in worse cases "go ask your other parent". Similarly, the child's "yes" when asked anything along the lines of "have you done what you know you were supposed to do" really means "what kind of trouble will I get into if you find out the real answer is no?"

We paint ourselves a comforting fiction that a simple "yes" or "no" is equivalent to "done" and "not done" (to borrow from T H White) - that it can only mean one thing. And yet we know that when the kids in the back seat say "are we nearly there yet" that for a long time the answer will be "no", but at some point it will magically become "yes", even though the question and the conditions under which it is asked are unchanged. It is a short leap from this to asking for an icecream every thirty seconds.

Those negotiations over biscuits, those demands of sureness, are rather clumsy ways of getting past the artificial barrier of "yes" and "no", and through to real desires and the reliability of knowledge. Had I know that, I would have known that the proper response to "are you sure you know the way" was:

"I know the route seems a little convoluted, but I have to come here at least once every day."

I would also have known that the best reply over the biscuits was to get out of trouble by not answering the question but making a general statement:

"I won't have another biscuit."

or, more politely:

"I've had enough to eat, thanks."


Edward de Bono wrote a short book that I can strongly recommend called "beyond yes and no". He is dealing with the perpendicular issue of how yes and no often result in an attempt at a preconfigured solution to every problem, rather than what he recommends, which is to apply a general approach, which he calls "policy" or simply "P".

Insisting to ourselves on the sanctity of yes and no is to try to penetrate other people's thoughts by separating the cream from the coffee. What we know about what goes on inside others' heads is not polar. This is mostly because what we know, and what others know, is not clear, or certain. I am convinced that we cannot be "sure". However this doesn't invalidate yes, no, nor the question "are you sure". These are tools used in a process by which we discover what other people think they know, and then decide how reliable that knowledge is.

From this point of view, a simple iterative process enables you to decide whether to follow the (rather pompous) 12 year old schoolboy through the labyrinthine corridors of the Victorian school building.

You observe his demeanour when you ask "do you know the way?". Realizing that he is likely to have learned to appear confident in every response, you decide to dig a little further than his forthright "yes". You'd be smart to do better than "are you sure?" though. You could attempt "how do you know?" or even "why are you sure?". Anything to provoke a further response that is on topic. You'll respond to the tone, the body language, as much as to the words themselves. (After all, I could be lying about going there every day.) And then, according to your confidence or otherwise you'll either declaim "lay-on, MacDuff" or wander off in search of some other insufferable, spotty, floppy-haired public schoolboy.


"Answer the question, yes or no!"

This is always a ruse. Sometimes the answer isn't "yes" and it isn't "no". If so, stick to your guns. Insist. Give the real answer.


Off Topic #2: Design

Following on from yesterday's not really off-topic post, here is another one, even less off topic, though perhaps seeming more so…

Design is dead.

Time there was, in production fabrication and construction, the designer was the single most important contributor to development. Today, few people even understand what, back in their heyday in the nineteenth century, designers actually did, and when I point out exemplary pieces of period design, many folks will comment "Oh yes, there's lots of design on that".

Somehow, design has come to mean "adding the pretty, nonfunctional details". Movements like Bauhaus are partly to blame. Bauhaus elevated design to an art form, but what made Bauhaus so aesthetically and ergonomically pleasing was its concentration on the principles that drove C18 and C19 engineering - the key being design. In the C19, design was the careful balance of functional requirements at all stages of the life-cycle of a product. The designer would, when deciding what his product would look like, take account of materials and their cost and availability, the cost, time and skill required for fabrication, the required durability, the costs of future maintenance, the necessity of future-proofing or backwards-compatibility (a couple of ideas that, under a variety of names, have been know since at least ancient Rome). The skill of some designers as the end of the nineteenth century approached was so great that they could afford to build-in beauty as a concomitant feature. In many areas of engineering, this idea continued through to the 1950s, and such visually divergent designs as Scotsman and Mallard…

 … which solve similar practical problems but with strikingly different visual consequences. Both are beautiful, because their beauty goes so much further than external prettiness.

The high profile and high public approval of these kinds of design, combined with Bauhaus (and its imitators) elevation of aesthetics – or perhaps the elevation of Bauhaus by the popular press – resulted in a separation between the visual appearance of a product and its engineered function. Creative people with little or no knowledge of manufacture were brought in to "design" products to make them pleasing to the eye, popular, fashionable. These "designs" were then passed on to fabricators whose job was to find a way to manufacture something that looked like the designs.

This is how things are today. The real skill of fabrication is working out how to make something. Wherever this is understood, there are no designers at all; engineers invent, plan and build. The results seldom meet needs even when they meet requirements. (You know who you are.)  Wherever there are designers, the engineers are woefully undervalued. Beauty has been divorced from function – indeed one often hears the two being described as in conflict: "a triumph of form over function" … "plain practicality".

To the engineers of the nineteenth century, as much as to the public who used their products, any design that solved a problem efficiently was inherently beautiful, and the satisfaction that they derived from the inherent beauty of a good solution, gave them the confidence to draw the bold flowing curves of the Mallard, and put Greek and Roman column capitals on gasometers.

In creative writing, design is seen by many as a sort of sell-out, betrayal or even circumvention of the artistic process. I have encountered this attitude as much in commercial writing as in novel writing. Setting aside marketing copy, novel writing is not, as many authors think, storytelling.

It has been accurately stated that the written word is the worst thing ever to happen to storytelling. Storytelling truly is an organic, creative, social process. When you tell a story to an audience, the audience responds to you and you to them. The story changes as it enters the imaginative space between you and your audience, and is different at each telling. Those of your audience whose imagination is captivated, will pass on your story to others, and it will change for them just as it changed for you.

When you write it down, it is the same every time you read it.

This gives you a problem to solve. How to tell the story that you want to tell, how to reach your audience when you don't have their reactions and you don't even know who they are? When you have a problem to solve, there is value in having a design. How far you take it is up to you – and is probably a function of your knowledge and experience. I suspect that many authors write as if they were telling a story with themselves as audience – which would explain the common observation by the author that the story took unexpected twists and turns, and that characters appeared, developed and evolved in unanticipated ways.

This stage is the discovery of the story. In storytelling, you discover the story either by being told it, or by telling it to yourself. Once you know your story, the practical problem to which you must return is "how to tell it using the written word". Most authors apply an iterative design process. Drafting and redrafting. Many authors involve third parties like beta-readers, proofreaders and editors (each of these has a different purpose and they should be selected to match your design process. Not every author can benefit from a literary editor). I guess the big advantage of novel writing is the possibility of design-after-the-fact. (I nearly said that in Latin, but I suspect that italics and hyphens is going to reach a larger audience.) Once you know the story, and have tried it out a few times, you can have several gos at writing it. My client, new writer Damon Courtney, has just sent me a redraft where he has made very substantial changes to the book, in structure, character dynamics, setting - even the outcome of major events (a party that had been planned then cancelled in the previous draft actually takes place in the new draft). The new draft is nonetheless the same story. But Damon has redesigned the way it is told to better match the medium: the written word.

The differences between "The Resurrection of Deacon Shader" and the rewriting "Shader: Cadman's Gambit" and "Shader: Best Laid Plans" are more than substantial. It's more a case of a few passages and characters from Resurrection being re-used in a new book. New book, same story.

If you are already a great author, chances are you probably ought to carry on doing whatever it is you do. If you want to become a great author, designing a book is complex and difficult. But worth it.


Off Topic #1

If you follow me on Twitter you will have realized that the Winter Veg season has started in earnest. Last week's basket from the AMAP included black radishes which are delicious raw, baked, deep fried, pan fried, in soup, stuffing or made into condiment. I went for soup, as follows:

1 large black radish
2 large potatoes
2 small onions or 3-4 shallots
2 saucisses à cuire
salt, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin seed

Serves four hungry people or two Russian peasants. Enough for about 6 middle-class English dinner guests.

Chop the shallots into small slices and put them in a hot frying pan with about 2 teaspoonfuls of lard (I prefer mixed lard for this but you can use fatback or caul). My lard is unbleached, untreated and comes from a local farm that has its own butchery. In general I advise getting your lard direct from the butcher or preparing it yourself.

Peel the radish and potatoes, and chop the potatoes into chunks and the radish into thinnish slices. As the shallots start to brown, add the potatoes and radishes, about a teaspoonful of paprika, a pinch of cayenne and a dozen or so cumin seeds. Keep the pan good and hot, and toss frequently.

While it is cooking, heat up a litre or two of water with about half a teaspoon of salt, slice up the sausage and drop it in the water. Let it come to the boil. (It helps if you have already had the sausage before, so you know how salty it is. This can vary quite a lot. With the saltier ones, there is no need to salt the water.

Once the potatoes and radishes start to brown, tip the entire contents of the frying pan in the boiling water. De-glaze the frying pan with about half a glass of red wine. (One the pan is empty, get it good and hot, and tip half a glass of red wine into it. It will boil instantly, and spit a little at first. Swirl it around so it cleans the pan.) Tip the remaining contents of the frying pan into the boiling water. You may need to scrape a little with a wooden spatula. I don't usually drink the last 3cm of any bottle of red. Instead I pour it into a bottle that I keep for the purpose, which is now a horrifying mixture of old wine. This is the best stuff for deglazing, or as a base for an instant marinade, or to add body to any braised dish.

Boil the lot for about 20 minutes.

Separate out all but 2 or three slices of sausage, and re-fry them in the same pan.  While you are doing this, put the rest in the blender and blend it until smooth and creamy (your guests may even think there is cream in the soup. This is part of the magic of lard, even in tiny quantities). If you need to add water to make it blend well, then do. It will probably be too thick at this stage anyway. Once the sausage starts to brown, put it back in with the soup. De-glaze again, but this time use less wine. About a quarter glass topped up to half way with water - or you could use Beaujolais. All it's good for IMO.

With a steady heat on, add a little pre-boiled water from the kettle until you get the consistency you want. I advice tasting it to judge the consistency, rather than just going on the stirring resistance.

Here's my top soup serving tip: if you're worried you haven't made enough, serve it too hot to eat with a spoon but with lots of crusty bread. Your diners will fill up with bread dipped in soup. In any case the radish will still be quite lively if you haven't cooked it too long.

Like any proper winter soup, this is very filling. Also like any proper winter soup you can make it with any damn vegetable. I did another this week with parsnip and salsify. The latter takes a little more preparation. I daresay I'll rave about salsify some time soon.


Translation Time

It's reaching a point where significant numbers independent, e-Published authors are making big enough sales to think about getting translated.

I have worked as a freelance translator, and know a number of them. Freelance translators are the best way to go because they cut out the intermediaries and you get better rates.

All this is somewhat beside the point though, and the point is this:

If you already have a book written in English that is selling in the English-speaking world, you can do a simple bit of maths to see if getting it translated will be profitable. Supposing you have a 75k word novel that has sold a total of 5000 downloads for $1.50 (your profit - sales commission already deducted ). If your main market is US English, then include Canada, the UK and Australia to creep up to a population of about 500M. This isn't the size of your market, but it's the only figure you need to work out if translation will be profitable (or when it will be).

France has a population of about 60M. They all speak French well enough to read your book in French. "Standard" French is also spoken as a first or second language in numerous other countries around the world, though experience tells me that estimates of how many speak it as well or nearly as well, or the same way or nearly the same way as in mainland France are deeply suspect. Around the world, though, there are probably at least another 30M people who could read and enjoy your book in standard French, or slightly tweaked French (such as Quebecois). Official French figures put the size of the French speaking world at over 900M if you include all variants and all people speaking French as a second language. I'm going with the lower figure.

That gives you a target population of 90M - call it 100M for ease of calculation, so one fifth the size of the English speaking population. So one fifth of 5000 download sales at $1.50 or nearest local currency; call it $1.45 to factor in currency exchanges and fluctuations: $1450

Your 75k word book will cost you anything from $5000 to $10000 to translate into French. Horrifying isn't it? But anything lower is a slave-wage for a translator - and in any case a literary translation is complex and difficult, and as much a creative as an interpretive art.

You would need to sell 4000 downloads to make a profit. Lets try something a little more expensive:

Your 150k tome currently downloads for $5.99, and to date you have sold on average 500 copies per month. You can expect to sell 100 copies (or less) a month in French. Cost of translation $10k to $15k. You'd take 17 months to break even.

The point is that you can compare your sales in one language to potential sales in another to find out if translation will be profitable. As far as I can see, it should be profitable to translate anything relatively short (less than 80k words) that sells fast. 

I'm already hearing rumours and ideas circulating among translators to set up translation and promotion services for any indie book that is already doing well enough in English to be profitable for translation. The French and German economies are large and affluent, "Global Economic Crisis" notwithstanding, and the sooner you break into these markets independently, the more you will encourage small, targeted intermediaries, rather than trad pub trying to get a stranglehold on translated releases by buying up foreign language rights and thereby maintaining their monopoly - albeit only on translated work.


Weird Words: The Cat that got the Canary

In her new thriller, Cruel Justice, Mel Comley introduced me to the expression the cat that got the canary. This extremely evocative expression puts me in mind of Sylvester who, after long years of torment, finally manages to swallow that damn bird. In the context where Mel uses it, someone is feeling very pleased with themselves. An expression exists for this, and it is: the cat that got the cream.

This is an expression that has existed for a very long time indeed, and is an expression of smugness or self-satisfaction, as it describes the expression of the first cat at the churn, who gets to drink the cream on the top of the milk before the other cats arrive and have to make do with the milk.

This isn't quite what Mel was going for, though I think it would have fit.  The cat that got the canary is somehow … predatory.


POV Confidence

Point Of View (POV), sometimes called person, or viewpoint, is a much analyzed and much deconstructed narrative technique. I think this is a mistake.

It is a very simplistic view — indeed it is a lie to children — that the experience of reading a story is one of associating, sympathizing, identifying, with a main character, and thereby imagining yourself in his place. We don't experience real life in such an insular, individualistic, egocentric way. We experience real life (much of the time) as a group; we see events and experiences through many pairs of eyes. When you witness some event, you cannot help but see the effect it has on others who witness it, though the expression, posture, movement. When you are caught up in some event, you experience it not only through your own thoughts and feelings, but those expressed on the faces of your companions, and the faces of witnesses and bystanders. Even when you are wholly alone (without any human company), your environment is as much affected by you as you by it, and as you witness your effect on your environment, so you experience your own actions from a separate (albeit inanimate) point of view.

But it is easy to get caught up in the lie of a single point of view. Not only does it simplify and de-mystify the work of the author, but it gives him the illusion of control. And that control is where it all goes wrong.

Broadly speaking, I classify POV as follows:

1. First person or non-first person.

This is an easy one most of the time. If the narrator says "I did this, I did that," then this is a first person narration. If the narrator says anything else, then it isn't. The issue is complicated by the fact that first person narration isn't always first person POV. Eh?

When the narrative conceit is of an agonist in some past event who decides to commit his account of the event to paper (as is the case in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries), the narrator will use "I" when talking about himself,  but might not always restrict himself to his own point of view. He can do this because he is narrating after the fact, and is in possession of additional facts and testimonies that he did not possess at the time. Here is a (made up) example:

While I conducted a thorough examination of the cellar, Holmes, wearing his customary expression of patient perplexity, returned to the library where he began a lengthy perusal of the late Duke's papers. Little did he know that he was being watched.

In the above case, the author is not slavishly restricting himself to what the (imaginary) narrator knew at the time, but uses what Watson must have found out later. I call this "what I didn't know" narration. It allows a first person narrator to go beyond his own point of view, and as such deliver a more rounded story, by which I mean one that includes witnesses other than himself.

2. Strong or Weak point of view.

Strong or Weak might just as well be expressed as structured or organic, disciplined or instinctive. "Weak" is not mean pejoratively. Strong POV is when the writer decides that the reader may know only what the current central character could know. As I have already suggested, this is a little artificial, but handled skillfully can lead to a real thrill-ride. Hitchcock uses this conceit in film (Vertigo, NxNW). Strong POV may be applied in either first or third person. (Or in extreme cases, second person. I fact when writing in second person, only strong POV is possible. And really, really odd. Try it sometime.)

Weak POV is harder to define. I can say that it leads to fewer problems for editor and reader, and is much closer to what I think of as natural narration, which is the way that you might tell an anecdote — for amusement or otherwise. Weak POV is a matter of telling the reader what the reader needs to know to experience the story as the writer intends. When different characters are acting in concurrently in mutually remote locations (or just mutually invisible locations), a gentle shift of POV allows the narrator to avoid lengthy recapping:

Sir Bedevere fought tirelessly; no matter the cost, he had to get through to the castle before it was too late. Robin was counting on him to save the Princess from a fate worse than … Bedevere wasn't thining about it, he was concentrating on the steady rise and fall of his sword.

Even as Bedevere fought his way to her, the Princess was not idle. Hearing the noise of battle, and sensing here fate was near, she had begun tearing the bedsheets into strips and braiding them together. She looked up at the bars on the window, then down at her hips. She would, she concluded, have to squash.

If I applied strong POV to Bedevere, then by the time the hapless knight will have fought his way to the Princess' bower, she will be long gone, and the narrator will either have to backtrack, or have Bedevere discover her means of escape, or worse still, have her recount her escape to him three chapters later when he finally catches up with her. In a good story, there is never time for explanation.

But strong POV leads to far worse excesses.

The twins, Alice and Bob, have, by the end of chapter four, become separated. The writer is having a blast alternating chapters from Alice' point of view and then from Bob's. In chapter 5, Alice sees Doctor Acula (the bad guy) for the first time. The narrator gives a suitably scary and ominous description of him, and he introduces himself and his evil schemes to Alice. Three chapters later, Bob espies Doctor Acula from a distance, and the writer finds himself in a rather silly quandary. How to describe the wicked Doctor such that the reader sense Bob's sense of foreboding without giving the reader the impression that Bob has recognized Doctor Acula, which of course he can't, since he hasn't  met him yet? Of course, it can't be done without giving the reader the profoundly confusing impression that there are two very similar bad guys.

I encounter this over and over again. Even experience, well respected writers varnish themselves into this corner.

Here's another: Around chapter 10, an ambiguous secondary character, Craig, needs to be introduced. For his introduction he's going to do something dramatic: pull of a daring robbery. But to keep him mysterious, the writer can't use Craig's point of view. However, neither Alice nor Bob are present, but the writer has decided that every chapter must use a strong POV. So, the writer invents Dave the Security guard. Chapter 10 is written from the point of view of Dave, who is variously trying to prevent Craig from getting in, then trying to protect the Diamond, then trying to catch Craig before he escapes. At the end of chapter 10, Craig leaps away into the darkness and Dave falls out of a high window. End of Dave.

I know some writers will try to excuse this clumsy and blatant mechanism as pathos. I for one ain't taken in, and I reckon the same is true of  most readers.

Finally, a word about head-hopping. Head-hopping is the much maligned practice of carelessly switching points of view within a single chapter, scene or even paragraph. At its worst it's really confusing, and it is really easy to mess up a narrative this way, so most editors will rightly discourage it, encouraging (I hope) using POV a little more weakly, or choosing one strong POV and sticking to it. However, head-hopping can be used to devastating effect.

In the first chapter of Mel Comley's new thriller, Cruel Justice, there is just one head-hop. It serves to accentuate the horror and brutality, and it is totally unavoidable. Read the first chapter here. Consciously or unconsciously, this is how to use POV.

POV isn't about what the character knows, it is about what the reader knows. EVERYTHING you write is about what the reader knows and what the reader feels and what the reader experiences. When you write, you aren't telling the reader what happened. You are using narrative to create an experience for the reader. The more you analyze and deconstruct your writing technique, the more you choose devices, styles, conceits because you like them, you know about them, you have seen others using them, the more you are writing for the benefit of the text, yourself, other writers and (heaven forfend!) critics.

Getting POV right is not about skill or technique, though. It is about confidence. And you get the confidence by knowing that you are telling the reader what he needs to know.

Do some live storytelling and you'll soon see.


Weird Words: Pair and Couple

Not interchangeable. The biggest lie that your primary school teacher told you was the one about opposites. I daresay I'll rant about that another day. The biggest lie that your highschool English teacher told you was the one about synonyms. The lie in question is this: synonyms exist. They don't. Even the sound of words, the length, the spelling, has different effects on different readers. Synonyms are one of those things that grammarians invent to try to apply rules and boundaries to language. But language, like life, is messy. It doesn't conform to rules, no matter how carefully they are defined. Know this and know it well: there are no synonyms.

Example (how proud Anne Soper would be): Pair and Couple.

To have a pair, or to have a couple, you must have two things. But not any old mismatched twain. (Twain is an excellent word. It means two things. They can be (in the immortal words of Edmund Blackadder) about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod.) You can't use pair and couple as synonyms, any more than you can use anything else. (What is a thesaurus for? See below).

A pair is two matching items. A couple is two complementary items. A pair is identical. Or similar. Or associated because of some feature they share. A couple can be opposites (ahem) provided they fit together. A couple is yin and yang (if you like that sort of thing). Jay and Silent Bob are a pair and a couple.

A Thesaurus is not there to help you find a different word. If you are looking for an alternative to the word you already used then you used it wrong the first time. A Thesaurus helps you to find the right word. The aposite word, by looking up a word that you know isn't quite right.



HP v165w 16 GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive P-FD16GHP165-EF (Blue)Once your book is uploaded to Amazon or Smashwords or B&N, it's safe, pretty much for good. You've publicly declared that the content is your property and your responsibility, and it's joined some of the largest and most comprehensive distributed, "cloud based" backup solutions that the market has to offer. Your work will never be lost.

But if you're anything like me, your computer, your USB key(s) (thumb drives), phone, tablet and numerous notebooks are stuffed full of fragments of uncompleted stuff, previous drafts, shorts, character studies, notes and ideas for future work.

AmazonBasics 4.7 GB 16x DVD+R (100-Pack Spindle)Notebooks (the paper variety) are at risk. You can spill coffee on them or drop them in a puddle. I've scanned my oldest ones but that is a long and laborious process, so I don't use handwritten notes for writing at all any more.

All that stuff on your various drives is at risk too. So how do you protect it?

I have had customers who've lost a year of accounting due to a hard drive failure. One of them had to spend about $ 1000 on data recovery after a server was "dropped" and both hard drives failed. Another was unable to recover anything...

Backup solutions are many. Your data is pretty safe from loss if you upload it all to your Google account. As to how secure it is... it depends on who you listen to. The bottom line is "belt and braces":

Store your data in more than one location.
  • On your hard-drive and copied onto a couple of USB disks
  • On your raid 0 hard drives and copied to an external drive
  • Printed to DVDs and on your hard drive
Iomega StorCenter 4 TB ix2-200 (2 x 2TB) Network Storage Cloud Edition 35430For writers, I think the best solution is to use multiple USB keys (thumb drives). There is some great, free, simple software for synchronizing them. It analyses each drive and makes sure that the most recent version of any file is copied to every disk. 

The beastie depicted is a NAS Hard Drive - like a mini network server. I install these for my business customers for about $550 installation included. It contains 2 hard drives (identical copies in case one fails), and it manages all the backup itself. Even a fancy piece of kit like this can fail, however. Especially if you drop it. So I encourage my customers to keep copies of important files both on the NAS drive and on their own workstation. 

Aubrey Beardsley PbIt is also worth bearing in mind that your home or office could be burgled. If you have something like the Iomega StorCenter (20cm x 14cm x 10cm), when you go away for a few days, leave it with a neighbor. If you have a thumb drive or two, take one with you and leave another with a neighbor. The more copies of your work you leave lying around, the less will get lost.

Unless you are an Aubrey Beardsley or an Emily Dickinson, you probably don't want your notes to be burned in the case of your death. If that is a concern, it's probably best to keep your notes and sketches in flammable form, because as soon as you connect your work to a network, it starts to get harder to destroy.


Pacing — dialogue, read-speed, comma, semi-colon, colon, stop.

I already discussed layout of direct speech, nametagging and said last month, but a feature of dialogue that I overlooked was the issue of pacing.

In real life, when people speak, they do a whole lot of other things at the same time, and in between speech. Some of this is unrelated to the conversation — breathing, eating & drinking, swinging an ax. Some of it arises from or illustrates the dialogue: shrugging, gasping, pausing for effect.

Imagine a game of squash between a pair of irritatingly competitive young executives, letting off steam after an important negotiation. I imagine them warming up on court, pounding the ball rather too hard for tactical practicality, and then playing a couple of games, discussing both during and between points, the behaviour of their colleagues and their client; pausing in their dialogue occasionally when the game gets difficult or strenuous.

How do you go about writing the dialogue of such a scene? I would have a little fun with the vocabulary and the imagery, by having Steve and Gary use exclusively physical metaphors when describing the meeting:

"We totally pounded them on the preference agreement," Steve hustled left and Gary had to back into a corner and swung his reply awkwardly.

"It looked as if Janet would drop that one, until you jumped in." Carefully evading Steve's fillibuster, Gary changed his policy and forced Steve to negotiate a tricky trajectory.

"Didn't matter how much they fired at us; Clive just kept batting it away."

Their exchanges intensified for a few seconds, and Steve, overtaken with determination, responded to Gary's every demand, until finally, reaching high and wide, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

"Nice," said Gary, not needing to force good-humour in defeat; he'd already scored enough points in the meeting.

Apart from the language games, what I'm going for here is a sense of two things happening at once. On screen, in the theatre, action and words can be presented together. On the page, you have two choices: you can give them one after the other:

"I've got this one," Steve shouted as he ran across the court 

Or you can try to give a feel for the action during the dialogue as I attempted in the earlier section. Whatever the type of action going on at the same time as the dialogue, the dialogue needs to be paced accordingly. Pacing is the art of convincing the reader to experience the action at the right speed, and the key to it is convincing the reader to read the same way that you would have narrated aloud — at the same speed, with the same pauses in the same places. The key to this, I increasingly think, is not punctuation. 

You may have learned in school, or read in a style guide, that you can use punctuation to control the length of a pause, with the short dash (–) as the shortest break, followed in order of length by comma, semi-colon, colon, and full-stop (period). (The long dash (—) is fashionable at the moment in place of a comma or matching pair of commas, and some writers feel that it fits between commas and semi-colons in pause length). I suspect that this principle arises from a misunderstanding of part of the explanation of what these punctuation marks are for.

(Originally, commas indicated separations between related clauses in a paragraph. En-dashes indicate breaks, such as cut-offs or interruptions. Em-dashes indicate interjected clauses, such as a remark that breaks the flow and the content of a sentence (e.g. "Beverley, hung over, made her way — not her usual way mind you — drearily to the office."). Semi-colons indicate a change of section, such as a progression in a multi-stage argument. Colons indicate that what follows is consequent to the previous clause ("Jimi was loved and lauded the world over: his death was a shock."). Full-stops indicate the end of a grammatical logical closure (usually called a sentence). You can observe from this post that I use these marks much more loosely than this — but I think it is worth knowing.)

I do not think that punctuation is the key to pacing. Punctuation, like everything else in language, is subject both to regional variations, personal variations and the mercurial vicissitudes of fashion.

Strong diction is part of what makes for good pacing. Strong diction is taking time over the choice of words, and strong diction can sometimes completely countermand what I said in my previous post about the word "said". Consider:

“Holy macaroni,” Claudine repeated. “And how do you feel about the situation?”

You will infer that this is not the first time that Claudine has used this expression in the present exchange. In terms of telling us that it is Claudine who is speaking, the nametag is already redundant; doubly so, therefore, with the verb "repeated". And yet the nametag itself is serving the pacing. Suppose the author had said:

  “Holy macaroni!” She paused in surprise. “And how do you feel about the situation?”

We now know what the nametag is there for: to provide a pause in the flow of speech. The pause that results  from this explicit tag is slightly longer, and weakens the impact, compared with the technically redundant tag in the original version.

I think that the only reliable way to control the read-speed is by choosing the right words, and placing them appropriately. I attempted to demonstrate this in the first example using this paragraph as a pacing break:

 Their exchanges intensified for a few seconds, and Steve, overtaken with determination, responded to Gary's every demand, until finally, reaching high and wide, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

While it doesn't take as many seconds to read as it probably took Steve and Gary to play the point, it serves to control the pace without resorting to the explicit (and too short):

They stopped talking to finish the point. Steve won.

Of course, pacing is also an issue involving the author's unique voice. And a reason, therefore, why the author should practice reading his text aloud, preferably to a live audience. 


Evolution of the market to e-Pub; le mot de Hachette

Hachette, is the largest French publisher, and the fifth largest publisher in the USA and the second largest publisher of school textbooks in the World.

Seven PM this evening, Arnoud Nourry, managing director of Hachette was interviewed by Frédéric Martel on French national radio station France Culture. He explained that in discussions with colleagues from other (unnamed) publishers he realized that they, himself included, had been both wrong, and surprised, by the development of electronic publishing.

The common belief (he said) in the industry was that electronic publishing would be limited to dictionaries,  large picture books, cooking, travel and schoolbooks, but that paperback literary fiction would remain for a long time on paper. They had made this assumption because they believed that formats that would benefit from interactivity and connectivity were the ones that would take to electronic formats the most freely.

Nourry stated that First Quater of 2011, one in five books sold in the USA was an e-Book, and that "most" of these were paperback literary fiction - black on white content, intended for small simple readers like the Nook and the Kindle.

What has particularly been discovered is that the main adopters of e-Readers are the large volume readers (those who read a lot of books, not those who read big books! - translating as I listen folks), and that as soon as they have acquired their reading devices, the transfer much of their consumption to electronic formats.

This took the publishers by surprise,  as they thought that the iPad would lead the way, with interactive and video content.

He went on to talk about their publications for schools, which are now systematically published in both paper and electronic formats - and in electronic format they are enriched with interactive content. He did not give details of the levels of adoption.

He went on to discuss the negotiations that Hachette has had with Google over Google's project to digitise all books that were out of print, and after lengthy negotiations Hachette has an agreement with Google that (while it doesn't really bring them in line with French copyright law) at least acknowledges the author and publishers rights. Every time Google digitizes a text originally published by Hachette, Hachette obtains a copy of the digital text for which they have full distribution rights.

In discussing Hachette's relations in negotiations with the big electronic publishers - Google, Apple, Microsoft - he was very positive about the future of Hachette, both because Hachette is very large, and because Hachette is protected by French law, and because Hachette has a positive attitude to the electronic future and a desire to seek, negotiated partnerships with the big players [I'm interpreting rather than translating here - these are my impressions from a rather vague and lengthy exchange].

The discussion moved on to the future of booksellers and in particular of bookshops. Neither I nor the interviewer was much convinced by his position that the bookshops were likely to suffer less than publishers from "dematerialization", indeed that they may benefit, as they have a key role in sorting and classifying books for the purpose of recommending them to readers. His supposition was that a bookshop would become a space where people go to discuss and discover. He did have examples to back this up. I invite you to voice your opinions on this...