Is anything 3rd person omniscient?

Following my last post, I've had some enlightening discussions with a few people. Below are some remarks by Becca Mills which helped me to move along in my own thoughts, which continue below the quotation.

I see your point, here, Harry - the writer is the "real" storyteller, and she's always a third-person figure vis-a-vis the story, even if she's writing biography (because she's writing about the past as the somewhat changed person her past experiences have made her).

The problem I see is that you're treating the third-person-omniscient narrative viewpoint as though it is not itself an artificial construct created for the purpose of narrating a story. You're presenting it as somehow more real or true to the actual situation, but in truth it's just as unreal as first- person and third-limited. The mind of the writer is omniscient vis-a-vis the story the way the Christian god is omniscient -- knowing all persons and events from outside time -- but third-person-omniscient narration isn't that kind of "knowing." That kind of knowing is capacious and alinear and is inappropriate for actual storytelling. TPO narration is still a linear and controlled release of info thru the "narrative voice," which is itself constructed for that purpose.

So I don't think we should think of TPO as the real narrative voice that undergirds all the others, which simply mascarade as being something other. But I do think it's useful to think actively about how artificial all the narrative modes are (and I don't intend "artificial" in a negative way, but just as describing some that is the product of art/artifice).

So I admit I'm glad someone sees what I'm aiming for, even if I don't see the target all that clearly yet myself, and I think that Becca's counterargument is a strong one. Why ought one narrative voice be any more original or authentic than the others? I don't think I have an answer for this. But Becca's clear thinking got me questioning my motivation for pursuing this in the first place.

Although the idea was provoked by a writer in difficulty over points of view, which happened to coincide with a whole cascade of threads on various fora where both readers and writers "rejected" particular narrative voices and points of view, I am beginning to wonder whether it is my background in theatre that is the cause of my desire to find an archetypal, atavistic, underlying voice.

Drama theorists, including Boal, Grotowsky and Barba, have, (guru-like, usually) proposed a sort of "story of the first theatre". They suppose that the primeval theatre can be deduced from study of the whole history of theatre in human cultures, and imagine a seminal event, where primitive hominins use performance for the first time as a conscious means of communicating ideas and (more importantly), culture.

I've never stopped to dismiss this storification of cultural history, even though it is exactly that. I dare say that part of the creation of theatre was a spontaneous act driven by a need to communicate something that could not be communicated any other way, but I also think that artifice is the core of the theatre. A very special kind of artifice, since all those who are members of a theatre's culture collude in the acceptance (known, on little evidence, as "willing suspension of disbelief") that the Stage is all the World.

I think this artifice is absent from story, because while theatre is an act of tribe or of culture—it confirms, reinforces, emphasises, the distinguishing characteristics of the culture to which it belongs even when it is challenging it—storytelling is an act of socialisation. I think that we hear and we tell stories as a way of making sense of eachother and of ourselves.

That's why it's essential that young children go through a phase of "telling tall tales". The child is practising the social activity of relating life and relating to life through stories. The child has observed that when others tell stories of a particular kind, it provokes a particular reaction, and the child wants to participate in this activity and in its consequences, and it makes little difference to the child whether a story is "true" or not. Indeed, the child is not lying any more than a cat is being cruel when it plays with a mouse.

The cat's life depends on its ability to hunt, and every opportunity to practise improves the cat's chances of hunting into it's old age. Storytelling is no less vital a skill for a human being to learn.

So I was wondering whether there was some element of those tall tales told by young children which is universal to, or which underlies, all stories.

One of the people who commented on my previous post suggested that I was failing to distinguish Narrator from Writer. This may have been so, but I am beginning to suspect that if anything, writers are making too much of a false distinction between them.

Even when Conan-Doyle is "narrating as Watson", he is still Conan-Doyle. Philip Marlowe is Chandler. Even Ishmael is largely Melville and Crusoe is much more Dafoe than he is Crusoe. It is all too easy to think of the narrator as someone else; I think that there are times when, even when the writer intends the narrator to be seen as a character, as a creation, that the writer should be careful not to forget that this is an artifice, an artifice in which the reader's complicity is required for it to succeed, and that (therefore) the reader's complicity must be sought.


Everything is 3rd Person Omniscient

This post arises from the following claim, that I made in my last post:

All stories are in 3rd person omniscient, whether you like it or not. Some stories look as if they are, and they are. Some stories look as if they are not, and they are.

So what does this mean?

I make this statement from time to time, and it's based more on a hunch than (thus far) a cogent argument. So rather than my usual rambling edifice, I'm going to try to explain why I have this hunch, or possibly instinct.

Firstly, a story needs someone to tell it. A real person. Whether he writes on the page or recounts to the room, he is a real, physical presence.

If a story has been made up, it must have been made up by someone. Since it comes from their imagination, they must know everything about the story, because anything they don't know, they can make up. Hence omniscient. The writer is always omniscient.

Non-omniscient points of view are a technique for restricting the flow of information from the writer to the reader, but the writer is always omniscient.

Can I tell a story where I'm not omniscient? If I told a true story, where I told my side of the story, based on what I knew, I suppose it would be 1st person restricted, but I doubt whether a POV definition is really meaningful in such a case. True stories become memoires, anecdotes and even biographies, because someone has, after the event, decided to present the event as a story. In such cases the writer knows more than he did at the time - if nothing else, he knows how the story will end, which he didn't know when the event was happening.

Which suggests to me that the writer is always omniscient.

But I also have this instinct that even POV is an illusion. 1st (or 2nd) person POVs are a sort of frame for 3rd person.

Now Robinson Crusoe is written in first person. Initially this presents me with a difficulty; one might suppose that storytelling arises from a need to communicate the events of one's life to others, and hence 1st person comes first. But a translation inevitably occurs, even in the mind of the teller: I am telling you a story about something that happened to me. Not me now, but me then. Every story must have an object, and that object is about me.

The main character of a story, then, is that story's object, the accusative of the story that is about him. That doesn't imply a 3rd person, but something does.

I think that something is related to the fact of knowing the ending; any telling, any bearing witness, becomes a story once the witness knows the end. Once the beginning, the middle, and the end become matters of the teller's choice, he will choose them according to his ideal of a good story. This encapsulation transforms real past events into a story. And this transformation into a discrete idea, "a story", separates the actors in the story from the continuum of their daily lives. Their story-self becomes someone else: a character. Once this story-self is created, the story can be passed on wholesale to another teller, who, knowing that it is not about him, may now chuse to tell it in the 3rd person, without changing the story.

I contend, indeed, that the "first person true story" only has a special effect on those who know personally the teller; for everyone else, it is a story whose truth is judged not on the claim of truth, but on the same standard as all "made up" stories: verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth. Hence the main character, the actor narrator, is for those who do not know him, a 3rd person.

To summarize, here, then, is what I think happens:

The writer knows all about the story, because he knows when it starts, he knows what happens throughout, and he knows how it ends, even at the beginning. The writer also knows who the story is about. The object of the story is a person that the writer has chosen to be the object. For me, these two facts make any story 3rd person omniscient.

The writer can them simply start writing.

Or he can chuse, for a variety of literary or strategic or even marketing purposes, to add an extra layer, the "imaginary narrator". He might, like Watson, know the whole story but not understand all of it, or be a POV that is really no more than a POV, like a man piecing together a story from security camera footage. I imagine the choices must be pretty broad, and many of them probably add a great deal to the variety and intensity of the reader's experience.

But behind all of them is the archetype of the story being told. And the archetype, the platonic ideal of any story, is related in the past tense, in the 3rd person, by an all knowing narrator*.

* at least, I think so. That's how it looks to me. But I wonder, Wittgensteinlike, how it would look to me if it looked as if it was all present tense first person restricted? I think I need to go lie down.


The Storyteller's Lesson

The Story is my master. I serve the Story; I listen to It, I watch over It. I bewail Its sorrows, I hail Its triumphs. I chant Its words. I sing the song of the Story, for I am the Story's voice.

Stories are not something that we make. They are something that we are. They are as much part of us as the air, our food, our friends our clothing our shelter. They are our parents and our children. When we wonder what we are, it is our stories that tell us. When we wonder what a thing is man, it is our stories that give us the answer.

Something that is so much of what we want to be, what we are, and what we will become must have great value?

Recently, in the history of the story, though it may seem like a long time to us, the story has been exploited by those who are able, dimly, to perceive that it has value, but cannot see what its value really is. They have sought to make a commodity of it, and they have sought to make the greatest profit from the smallest story; the biggest reward for the smallest effort. They have done this by trying to create formulae for a stories that will have the greatest possible appeal.

Now they that dimly perceive the value of the story vaguely understand that the story is about what we are, what we want to be, and what we are going to be. And they loosely grasp that while we all have the story in common, there is much variation in what we are, what we want to be, and what we can be.

And so, they say, the story must appeal directly to each of us. We must all feel close to its characters. That way we will all be hooked on the small story, and they will reap their big reward.

And, they say, there must be a way to write a story that does this thing: that every reader will feel a closeness, an association, a commonality, a sympathy, with the main characters, and this will tie him to the story. And they say that the way to do this is to give the reader the impression that the character's thoughts are in his head. And they say that the logical way to do this is that when the character does this or does that, the reader should read this as "I do this" and "I do that." In this way the reader can hardly avoid feeling like he is in the story, right?

And they say, of course not all readers have the same ideas or aspirations. And they say that each reader thinks of himself as a particular type of person; tough-guy, intellectual, starlet, scientist, ascetic, poet, artist, priest. And you can't bundle all of these into one character. And they say that you solve this by having several characters, each of whom combines a few compatible characteristics with which readers will identify.

And the Story is grasped firmly by the Smith, and heated in the fire, and beaten and split and twisted and then it is slaked in the style in mode.

I sing, of course, of the fashion for 1st person narrative with multiple points of view.

I don't think that one storytelling technique is inherently better than any other. But there is fallout from this fashion for multiple characters and head-hopping. Writers who do it because they think it's the only way. Writers who think that since a story includes many characters, that the story cannot be told by only one person. Writers who, when trying to switch from 1st person multi to 3rd person end up patchy, bitty and confused, with no characters fully in focus.

It all goes wrong when, as with every other damn thing in writing, you make a stylistic or narrative choice with your eyes shut. With your eyes shut, you can't see the story. If you can't see the story, you can't know the story, and if you don't know the story you can't tell the story.

Whoa there! Yes, you can write a good story by just sitting down and starting writing, can't you? You don't have to plan it all out?

Of course. But there's a reason why you can, and a reason why it doesn't always work. The Story is something you can know in a general way, the story you write in your book is an aspect of this general Story. If you know well what makes a story work, what makes it happen, then you can guide yourself through your writing, and produce a coherent story without planning. If, on the other hand, you conjure up a bunch of compelling characters and throw them into a nightmare scenario and then... well, what, really? At best you get a cliché.

The Story is my master. I serve the Story; I listen to It, I watch over It. I bewail Its sorrows, I hail Its triumphs. I chant Its words. I sing the song of the Story, for I am the Story's voice.

All this chanting isn't for nothing. You know the Story as well as I do. That's why you're a writer of stories. If you're having a hard time getting what you want through to your readers, if you're having a hard time getting it onto the page, the chances are you're letting major factors like narration and characterization get in the way of the story. The story itself is not singing. You need to look for what the story looks like. For me it's always a shape; sometimes an irregular polygon, sometimes a landscape, sometimes just a simple path, but always something I can see, describe, and name.

Editing has taught me to see the story that the writer hasn't seen. The Story has a way of getting itself told, and if you find yourself in constant rewrites, it could be because you aren't trying to tell the story that wants to be told.

Sitcoms put characters in situations. In a story, the characters are a requirement of the story; they aren't participating in an event; they are part of it. The events occur because of them, they are involved because they have no choice; they are actors, not spectators. Romeo dies because he is in love with Juliet. Juliet dies because she is in love with Romeo. Replace them with Mercutio and Rosalind, and nobody dies. What happens in a story happens because it must happen. Because it is the only thing that can happen. The Greek dramatists understood this inevitability well. Modern readers do too. That's why a restricted POV is little more than a game; an experiment in limiting the reader's expectations. That's why a restricted POV works well when writing, for example, a book about a teenager that is intended for adults (like Catcher in the Rye).

But it's also why a book written in 3rd person omniscient (or "storyteller" as I like to call it) will be a different experience to read when you are young from when you are older, and different again when you are older still. In real life we have a very broad view.

This essay is getting too long, so I'm going to try to wrap up.

If you put the story first, the characters will follow. If you know and understand the story well, the characters will be good, strong, meaningful characters. The reverse is not always true.

Once you are sure you understand well both the story you are writing, and the process, techniques and mechanics of stories, then you can start playing games with readers' perception through varying points of view.

To sum up: it is an error to suppose that when you sit down to write, you make a choice between 1st or 3rd person, omniscient or restricted, one character's POV or everyone's or noones. All stories are in 3rd person omniscient, whether you like it or not. Some stories look as if they are, and they are. Some stories look as if they are not, and they are. You don't need, however, to master 3rd person omniscient; it's the one that comes naturally. If you chuse to present your story in a narrative form other than 3rd person omniscient, then know that this requires planning and discipline and practice.


Crossbows, Longbows and Skyrim

Some of my clients will already know that I am a ballistics geek. As crossbows have recently been added to Skyrim, and they are ludicrously overpowered for their size and mechanics, I thought I'd make a few remarks.

The common measure of the power of a bow is its draw weight. The draw weight is the force (expressed in units of weight), required to draw the string to its maximum position. This measure gives a good indication of the raw power of the weapon, but there are a lot of other factors that govern its effectiveness.

Draw length is the distance that the string travels from its release position to its maximum draw position.

After release, the projectile accelerates through the draw length, and as soon as it leaves the bow it begins to decelerate.

However, because the bow is essentially a type of leaf spring, the energy stored in the bow is transferred to the projectile as the bow straightens, but as the bow straightens so less power is delivered, so acceleration peaks very shortly after release, and decreases until the projectile leaves the bow.

Arrow length must be longer than or equal to draw length in a simple (straight) bow because the shaft must be guided by the archer's hands. In a crossbow it can be shorter, since the stock guides the projectile.

A longer arrow will be heavier. More projectile weight means more inertia to overcome in acceleration. Longer simple bows require longer arrows, so to minimize weight, the arrow shaft must be lighter, and to be lighter it must be thinner. A light shaft is flexible. On release, the force of the bow against the inertia of the arrow compresses the shaft, causing it to bend. A fine, even shaft will form a balanced double bend, known as snaking. The longer the shaft, the more likely there will be grain imperfections that will cause unbalanced snaking, and an inaccurate arrow. Modern fibre arrows flex very little, since they are extremely light and extremely uniform.

A longer arrow will, however, be more accurate at longer distances. The long shaft will stabilize it. This means that the fletching (or flight) can be smaller, which reduces drag, and further increases accuracy (or rather, limits the effects of flaws in the fletching on accuracy).

In the crossbow's shorter draw length, a shorter arrow can be used. So a short fat arrow (usually known as a bolt) can be used with the same draw weight, and it won't flex. This has the advantage that projectile stock quality need not be quite so exacting. However, it has none of the stabilizing effect of the long, thin shaft, and so it needs a relatively large fletching, which causes drag.

These factors combine to make the crossbow much more accurate over an average number of shots at short distance, but accuracy decreases very fast with range. At shorter distances (under 100yds), a crossbow is slower but quality of manufacture of the projectiles has only a small effect on accuracy. At longer distances, the simple bow still requires the arrows to be of high quality to achieve accuracy, but the accuracy it can achieve is much greater.

The bow has two uses as a tool.

One is for hunting. The crossbow us next to useless for hunting as it is too noisy at close range and inaccurate at long range. The simple bow is almost silent.

The other use is of course for killing people who are (presumably) trying to kill you. Military historians and theorists, as well as people who can do a little simple math, will tell you that in projectile weapons, two factors trump everything else. The lesser of the two is cover: can the weapon be loaded and fired from cover. Both actions are easier for the simple bow; the crossbow is hampered by cover, but slow to reload, so cover is more important to the crossbowman. The greater of the two is rate of fire.

In rate of fire, the crossbow suffers the most terrible of compromizes. The only way to maximise rate of fire is to reduce loading time, and that can only be done by sacrificing mechanical advantage, and in consequence, draw weight. To summarize: a crossbow can be fast to reload or it can be powerful. It cannot be both. Even the fastest loading crossbow (the simple lever crossbow) has a rate of fire that is at best half the rate of the simple bow.

The major advantages of the crossbow are in fact economic. Manufacture of crossbows is a little more expensive than manufacture of simple bows, but only because the best simple bows require considerable expert skill and practice to manufacture, whereas the crossbow is complex. However, crossbow ammunition need not be of a high quality, so the projectiles for crossbows are much cheaper to manufacture than accurate arrows for longbows. All this pales into insignificance, however, when compared to the cost of training the soldiers.

It takes a few weeks at most to train someone to use a crossbow effectively on the battlefield. However it takes many years of regular practice to become proficient even in short simple bows with a relatively low draw weight.


And so to Skyrim.

Skyrim is a game, and it is a game about being a hero (or the opposite). It isn't a game about being a battlefield soldier, or a medieval general. The hero is, one assumes, something of an expert at arms and weapons, and has both the time and inclination to practice enough to perfect his skills.

Crossbows were added with the Dawnguard DLC (downloadable content—an extension to an existing game that is downloaded from the internet, M'Lud).

The crossbows in Skyrim are short, simple lever crossbows. Even when cocked by a massively muscle-bound Nord Hero, the draw weight must be pitiful, given the rate of fire that you can achieve. Yet they seem to be more effective than simple bows. This, of course, is the physics of the rule of cool. Crossbows are cool (apparently) so Skyrim has to have crossbows, and they have to be really really effective.

Personally, I don't think crossbows are cool. The crossbow is the weapon of poorly trained cannon fodder, not the weapon of a hero. I get that as a means of putting a stake through the heart of a vampire it makes a certain poetic sense - though in what way a conventional wooden arrow isn't a stake, I've yet to understand.

Next there will be pistol crossbows. I wish there were an html markup for massive, withering disdain. If there were, I'd have written that: <massive, withering disdan>pistol crossbows</massive, withering disdain>. Probably in comic sans. Being hit by a bolt from a pistol crossbow is rather like being poked with a damp twig.

Sigh. I like Skyrim. It has a great deal of awesome, and an awful lot of silliness. Don't even get me started on the dungeons full of useful gear and all the heal and buff potions left lying around just before the difficult bits.

Probably time to call it a day.


Were you wondering where the spurious/tenuous connexion to writing was? Here is your Aesop:

There is no substitute for research. Because while you can have some hero-dude who has a special skill that means he can both fabricate and use crossbows that are as effective or even more effective than simple bows, you should not do so in ignorance. The Rule of Cool is at your disposal, if applied sparingly, but you should do so knowing that you are doing so.


Noone hates implied clauses more than me.

In my book about grammar geekery I was writing some dialog, and stumbled on the material for another whole chapter. It's a perfect example of where the good practice of descriptive grammar creates controversy where there should be none, and comes from the desire (erroneous I think) to classify "than" as one of the two common invariant particle types: preposition or conjunction. Swift loved this sort of thing.

If you view "than" as a conjunction, then it should be found between two grammatically complete clauses.

If you view "than" as a preposition, then it should take an accusative compliment (an object noun or pronoun), "like it does in Latin".

But Latin is far too sensible for silliness over "than". Quam is technically an adverb, modifying the verb into a comparison with itself. Tarquin is prouder than Horatio >> Tarquinius superbior quam Horatium est >> implies that quam est means "is compared with" >> Tarquin is more proud compared with Horatio.

Sadly, English is not Latin.

The conjunctionists and the prepositionists (for which read bigendians and littleendians) both come up with some clever arguments for why it should be theirs, and according to which side you are on, you would follow than with either a subject or an object:


Noone hates implied clauses more than I.


Noone hates implied clauses more than me.

The former provides me with a rare (but perfect) opportunity to use the word "specious". The argument claiming that it is a conjunction states that "than I" is short for the implied second sentence "than I hate implied clauses." It doesn't take a genius to see what's amiss here. We don't normally say:

She loves you more than I love you.

What we do say is:

She loves you more than I do

and we say that when we want to avoid the possible ambiguity of:

She loves you more than me

which might mean:

She loves you more than she loves me.

Of course, the only time that it is ambiguous is when the context doesn't indicate who ought to be loving whom, and such situations, I suggest, are fairly uncommon.

I observe in modern English that, like in Latin, we do not say "Tarquin is more proud than Horatio is proud, but "Tarquin is prouder than Horatio."

To push it a bit further, here's another Latin example:

Is vidit paucos servitos fideliores quam eum.

For clarity's sake,  we would typically translate with: "he has seen few servants more loyal than this one".

Who really thinks that this is an abbreviation of "he has seen few servants more loyal than this one is loyal" ?

Than is neither conjunction nor preposition. It is an indicator of comparison; the sentence is structured around the pairing of "more" with "than", just as in the earlier example, "prouder" and "than" are paired to explain a comparison.

It isn't a conjunction because although without it you get grammatically complete sentences, you don't get meaningful ones and further more, by inserting it, part of one of the sentences becomes redundant – this does not happen with conjunctions.

He has seen few servants more loyal. This one is loyal.

It isn't a preposition because it isn't indicating a relationship. I found myself wondering about relativity.

Consider Alice and Bob, in the vacuum of interstellar space. Let us provide them with spacesuits and an adequate supply of oxygen.

Alice is facing Bob.

This is an expression of relativity. It gives Alice's position relative to Bob, but to nothing else in the Universe. That makes it pretty relative.

Alice and Bob are side-by-side.

Philosophically, this is the same kind of statement, though diagram it and you get something different.

Alice is taller than Bob.

Something is different, here, and it is that there is a difference being expressed. Alice is singled-out for her height. In the other two sentences, we are essentially saying the same about both of them, so:

Alice is as worried as Bob about their air supply.

This can be constructed in the same way as a sentence with "than":

Alice is as worried about their air supply as Bob.

Now pretend this is a conjunction. If it is, we should be able to take away the conjunction and make two grammatically complete sentences if we complete the second one with the implied clause:

Alice is as worried about their air supply. Bob is worried about their air supply.

But as we are told, is an adverb, used in comparison, and it is the former as that is the operative one, so maybe I am being dense, but why can't than be an adverb?

Either way, these thought experiments are all very fascinating, but don't really help. As Wiktionary accurately observes:

prescriptionist rule [that it should be treated as a conjunction ] … is inconsistent with well-established usage

Against my usual convention, in researching I turned to the etymology last:

O.E. þan, conjunctive particle used after a comparative adjective or adverb, from þanne, þænne, þonne "then" (see then). Developed from the adverb then, and not distinguished from it in spelling until c.1700.

The earliest use is in West Germanic comparative forms, i.e. bigger than (cf. Du. dan, Ger. denn), which suggests a semantic development from the demonstrative sense of then: A is bigger than B, evolving from A is bigger, then ("after that") B. Or the word may trace to O.E. þonne "when, when as," such as "When as" B is big, A is more (so).

It is possible, þen, þat it has a dual heritage, a parallel evolution from "þen" - then, and "þonne" - when (how I wish I had thorn on my keyboard). This would mean that, you would be a bigendian if you followed the descent from þen and a littleendian if you followed the descent from þonne. Probably, the twain shall meet, and it seems likely that they will meet on:

I hope you're smarter than me
I hope you're smarter than I am
but not
I hope you're smarter than I.


Weird Words #9: Cherish

There are very few proper English words that I can honestly say are not in my vocabulary. This is one of them. I have no idea what it means, and I have never used it in a sentence other than to say that I don't get it.

I think this falls into a weird cognitive category of words whose meaning never got firmly attached for me. There are a number of reasons for this, but in this particular case, I think it's a combination of this word not being used by anyone in my immediate family, combined with the distracting voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant (the sound of the letters 'ch') at either end meaning that whenever anyone else used it, I just got hung up on the noise. Which is a weird noise.

My go-to dictionaries have the following to say about this word:

Doug Harper:

early 14c., cherischen, from O.Fr. cheriss-, extended stem of chierir (12c., Mod.Fr. chérir) "to hold dear," from chier "dear," from L. carus "dear, costly, beloved" (see whore). Cf. It., Sp., Port. caro; O.Prov., Catalan car. Related: Cherished; cherishing.

Deceptively simple. It seems to mean "the figurative act of holding onto something of value" - a combination of possession and affection?


1. To treat with tenderness and affection; to nurture with care; to protect and aid.
2. To hold dear; to embrace with interest; to indulge; to encourage; to foster; to promote; as, to cherish religious principle.
3. (obsolete) To cheer, gladden. 

(1) seems to have nothing to do with possession at all. Hmmmm. (2) is all over the place. (3) is deeply suspect.

Urban Dictionary:

1. cherish 111 up, 32 down
To love;
To Treasure.
"I cherish you dearly."

2. Cherish 101 up, 33 down
a beautiful & happy woman. one that loves deeply, a strong woman with a lot of friends. sexy with great legs. likes to have fun, does what she wants and doesn't what people think about it. loves life, friends & family. a loyal friend that you can count on to be there.
"Cherish is awesome!"

Colour me unenlightened; though I think we know what ballpark, or at least what county we're in.

1 a : to hold dear : feel or show affection for 
b : to keep or cultivate with care and affection : nurture 
2 : to entertain or harbor in the mind deeply and resolutely 

I think I have a serious problem. If I read the definitions from Webster I kind of get it, up to the point when I read the example, when it all collapses again. I wonder if it's quantum.


In Reply To: The Marilyn Meme - from Shameless Blog

Original Post.

It's easy, and indeed trivializing, to blame society for the claimed 'pitting women against eachother'. To be sure, there are plenty of cultural factors that reinforce competition between women, but men and women need no encouragement to compete to get a mate. As soon as one person is attractive to more than one other person (regardless of the gender of anyone) those who are attracted are in competition. This isn't just logic, it's zoology, and dumping all this gender politics on it just gives people an excuse to think of themselves as victims.

This kind of competition is an inevitable part of mammalian existence. To be human is to struggle against our mammalian baggage when it is harmful to ourselves and to others.

If there really was a war between all the men and all the women, then divide and rule would be an effective tactic and a meaningful accusation. But most people, regardless of their gender and gender preference, want to get with someone, for reasons of friendship, companionship, comfort and joy, of which physical relations are an (almost) inevitable part.

This said; the first image reinforces competitive behaviours by drawing comparisons. The second implies a comparison, however - it implies that if your thighs don't touch, you can't be as attractive as Marilyn.

All this said; if the two women in the first image were (unknown to me, and) competing for my interest, I literally wouldn't know where to put my head. Both are very fine examples of young women in excellent health (a sign of reproductive fitness), who take care over their appearance (a sign of good self-esteem), and whose posture is relaxed and confident (a sign they will be easy to get along with). They may be very different examples, but I if they were competing for me, I wouldn't base my response on what I observed from a photograph anyway.

A final point: Marilyn was adored by a lot more than thousands of men, but not for hear appearance. As Ms Cromarty observes, she was a very good actor; funny and quirky, and she didn't need to pout or flash her cleavage to compete on set with the boys. But most of all, she had air of vulnerability that made her seem accessible. Everyone is vulnerable; we form friendships, couples, families, to help us to feel more secure, to help us to support one another.

It has too often been an aim of feminism to toughen women up, to try to make you impervious, invulnerable, so that you won't be a victim of all the harmful influences of a male dominated culture. This attitude however, will not help you with all the problems that come from within, come from the fact of being a human mammal. Furthermore, it will make it harder for you to make friends, find a mate and raise children. The strongest alliances are between people who know their own, and eachother's, weaknesses. To form them we have to show our vulnerabilities.

Awareness of your own weaknesses, your own vulnerabilities, is therefore the best defence against the harmful influence of our culture. The woman who sees Marilyn and does not know how susceptible she is to her own desire to compete, will compare herself physically to Marilyn and find herself wanting. The woman who is aware of this susceptibility, however, will remind herself that Marilyn is Marilyn, and has Marilyn's unique reasons for being attractive, that go way beyond the way she looks; and she will remind herself that she has her own reasons for being attractive that also go way beyond the way she looks, that she doesn't need to be, any more than she can be, attractive to everyone. Just attractive to someone.


The Casablanca Paradox - Character Non-Development

I doubt very much that I need to give a plot summary of Casablanca.

The film marked me from very young; I remember watching it in my Dad's trailer*, so I must have been at some age between 11 and 15, and though that wasn't the first time I'd seen it, I remember that was the first time that I was struck by Rick's character, and the first time that I wondered at what point did he realize he wouldn't be on that plane?

I think he knew from the moment that Ilsa walked into the bar.

Like many plays and short stories, films with sensible running times (it clocks in at just over 100 minutes) have little room for character development. There's room for a little self-discovery, along with the usual light intrigue and overcoming of fairly understated odds, a few moments of humor, and a few moments of sentiment, but most of the character work is about revelation.

In Casablanca, the character revelation takes the usual two forms: characters discover things about themselves, and discover things about eachother. With one exception – and this is the paradox – Rick.

While he does make discoveries about other characters, of the five characters who turn out by the end to be anything more than cyphers, Rick is the only one who makes no discoveries about himself. Maybe, just maybe, he's changed since the Paris. Maybe he was changed by Paris, but I don't think so.

Even in Paris he was already an exile, an outsider. Ilsa says:

We said "no questions."

And Rick is happy to agree. Even in Paris he knows that she has some sad story in her past, and that what she needs from him is a man to love and a man to love her; it is a feature of Rick's battered honor that he is happy to oblige. You can imagine that for Ilsa he takes a break from casual womanizing, because he's capable of understanding what makes Ilsa different. As long as she needs him, she needs him to herself.

Inside a swank Paris cafe, Rick and Ilsa dance. They appear to be very much in love as the MUSIC plays.

I believe they are. Rick wouldn't think of spending time in the company of a woman like Ilsa without being in love with her.

And at the Gare de Lyon, Rick does get on the train. I can't really imagine that this is the first time he is unlucky in love.

Back in Casablanca, Annina's new husband is trying to win enough money at roulette to get passage to America, while Annina herself is agonizing over giving Capitaine Renault the only thing she can give him in order to get the documents they need, given that she is realistic about her husband's chances of winning it at Rick's tables.

He dryly observes:

Noone ever loved me that much.

After Rick intervenes to get them the money they need, Renault challenges him for 'interfering with his little romances' :

As I suspected, you're a rank sentimentalist

And Rick's retort is:

Put is down as a gesture to love.

Renault takes it with his habitual good nature. And he really is habitually good-natured with Rick. Renault  is corrupt, despicable and duplicitous, but he seems to have a soft spot for Rick, and while Rick is touchy or angsty with anyone else, he doesn't seem to get annoyed with Renault no matter what he does.

Ilsa discovers, with Rick's help, that she loves Victor and Victor loves her, and that it is better for both of them to stay together. She never had any more than a small doubt about it in any case. At one point she thought she would have to stay with Rick so that Victor could escape. But Ilsa never really understood Rick's honor even when she discovered it.

Victor is a cypher most of the time; a symbol of intellectual resistance. He can afford to be indulgent towards his wife, since he is so utterly intolerant of Nazi oppression.

Ugarte has been a 'cut price parasite' for while, and Rick thinks little of him, but Ugarte discovers something about himself even as he reveals it to Rick: he is capable of more than either of them imagined. It's a good thing Lorre was available, otherwise Ugarte is just a plot-vector, unwittingly ensuring the means for Victor and Ilsa's escape. But Lorre is a bigger actor than anyone else on set, and turns a cameo into a supporting role by compelling the watcher's attention. This makes Ugarte's development seem bigger than it is, but in doing so provides yet more contrast with the ever stable Rick.

Sam has no need for development. He is comfortable in his skin, and shows it, whereas Rick, who in truth is just as comfortable, does not show it. The pivotal scene, "you played it for her and you can play it for me" can be looked at in different ways, but my feeling is that Rick is able to dredge up such a strong memory from the past because the wound has healed. Listening to the song is nostalgia, sentimental but not painful.

It is therefore inevitable that the movie ends with the only relationship that really mattered, and the only one that is really anything new. When the film starts, Rick's story with Ilsa is already over. But when it ends, Louis (Renault) makes a discovery about himself, that the whole film has been building up to: he is also happy in his own skin, and admires Rick because Rick is the same. The way that Rick and Louis talk about eachother is affectionate and mildly self deprecating.

Rick, on Louis:

Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so.

Louis, on Rick:

… he's the kind of man that, well, if I were a woman and I …
(taps his chest)
… were not around, I should be in love with Rick. But what a fool am I talking to a beautiful woman about another man.

The fact that Rick does not change; that he knows that his romance with Ilsa, far from being doomed, is already over: all this leads to the conclusion of the film. Louis realizes that it is 'the start of a beautiful friendship'.

As character work goes, this is all fairly unusual for the genre. Central characters who remain unchanged from beginning to end (while changing those around them) is not usually allowed in romantic drama (though it is common in action and crime dramas). The male lead especially is usually required to face his weaknesses, show his emotions and discover that he loves the female lead, so that by the end they are both better people.

Maybe what makes Casablanca a great romance is that it is not about romance, but about respect, honor and (most of all) friendship. Sam is a good friend to Rick. Rick is a good friend to Ilsa (both in Paris and in Casablanca) and Rick and Louis become good friends.

Friendship is something that can be worked into all genres of literature, it is intensely human, and in my opinion more compelling than love or heroism or justice. And as Casablanca shows, there are different kinds of friendship, different degrees, different consequences. All stories can benefit from good friends and good friendship.

* For British and American readers, my Dad's trailer was what in the UK is called a "static caravan" and is, in the UK, used as a sort of holiday home on camps where there are activities, in this case waterskiiing and windsurfing. The static caravan has none of the disadvantages of camping and non of the advantages either.


What to Expect from an Editor #5: What not to Expect from an Editor

I think that these posts about editing should probably be taken as a view of my thoughts on editing as it evolves over time, so it is probably a good idea to ensure that you have read all of them (links top right).

I've been thinking about this one for a long time, and as I specialize more and more in story development and do less and less copy-editing, I think there are a couple of lines that I can draw fairly clearly on the subject of what you should not expect.

To get copy-editing out of the way: from a copy edit, you should not expect your manuscript to be error free, and conform perfectly to every style guide. But you should expect errors to be few and conformities to be maximized.

For a content edit, here are a few things that you shouldn't expect, after your edit has been completed:

1. All content editors agree that your manuscript needs no further editing.

The truth is, your editor might think that the manuscript needs further editing, but doesn't want to overwhelm you. A content editor is not just working with your manuscript. He is working with you. Even an experienced writer can still learn and improve, and working with an editor is a good way to stimulate this improvement. So an inexperienced writer might, not to put to fine a point on it, have a lot to learn. A responsible editor may well chuse not to draw attention to all the problems, because it can end up looking insurmountable. Actually this doesn't happen all that often, but it is worth being aware of it.

More often, different editors will have different preferences and priorities, and what you chuse to do to solve one problem might be considered a new problem by a new editor.

Editors' preferences might run to your turn-of-phrase or even vocabulary choices. Editors' might prioritize, narration, characterization, plotting differently. This is why I've already blogged on chusing the right editor for you. Complete your rewrite, your editor might tell you it's all good, you send it to another editor and he might tell you something completely different. Hence point number 2:

2. Your editor will tell you when your manuscript needs no further editing.

Content editing is expensive, time-consuming and its results are uncertain. Even though those who have tried a professional content editor generally want to do it again and again, it's worth looking for alternatives. Discussing your work in writer's groups is good, as is using a panel of beta-readers. I think that a content editor brings something else to the table, though, and that is a service tailored personally to you and your book.

Even so, only you can decide when your book is ready for publication. I think if you use an editor and are not satisfied with the draft you do afterwards, but the editor thinks it's good, it probably means the editor wasn't a good match to the book, or to you, or both.

3. Everyone who reads your book with think it is great, and
4. You will sell loads of books because your book is great

It may seem obvious that these two are false, but it is worth preparing yourself mentally for the reviews that say: "this book seriously needs editing!".

And indeed, mentally preparing yourself for not selling many books.

It's the subject of much curiosity and discussion, that the quality of a book doesn't seem to be much of a factor in its (initial) success. That seems to be largely luck. Once the book is established, the better books will continue to make good sales for longer, we hope.

Tangential to these two is what is, for me, the bottom line of what not to expect:

5. Your book will be great because your content editor is great.

If you have a great content editor, she will have done a great job at finding the problems and opportunities, documenting them, communicating them to you, and suggesting what you should do about it. However, she won't be the one rewriting you manuscript. That will be you. No matter how good your editor is, your book can only be as good as you can make it. I believe that if your editor is great, then you can make your book a whole lot better with the editor than alone, but it's still you the limiting factor.

I find I can be very open about this with my authors; most of you think you are worse than you are; all of you are trying to become better. I believe that working for authors who are humble but ambitious, keen to learn and hardworking, is what makes me become a better editor. Since I work with lots of authors, while most authors work with two or less editors, I reckon I get the better side of the deal, which is why I advise all writers to try more than one content editor: even if the one you have really suits you, you can learn a lot by working with someone else from time to time.

What I Liken't

This probably goes into a category in between weird words and English grammar contradictions, among the things that occasionally annoy me about English compared with the other languages I know. This post is all about negation: giving a sentence the opposite or negative meaning, preferably with a few small changes. Let's start with the Latin (it's good to start with the Latin).

Caesar aedificare copiis pontem facebat

"Caesar caused the troops to build a bridge"

But suppose he intended to do so, but at the last minute was prevented? The simple addition of non in the right place, and the sense is inverted:

Caesar aedificare copiis pontem non facebat

 "Caesar did not cause the troops to build a bridge"

(Part of the fun of Latin is that you can move the non and change the meaning:  Caesar aedificare copiis non pontem facebat — "Caesar caused the troops to build something, but not a bridge" !)

Same again in French:

Caesar fit construire un pont par les soldats

is negated;

Caesar ne fit pas construire un pont par les soldats

and indeed, a peculiarity of the literary register in French means that with the verbs faire and être, the pas can be omitted:

Caesar ne fit construire un pont par les soldats

In modern spoken French, the ne is often omitted in the present tense (though this will lose you marks in exams and sounds awful):

Caesar fait pas construire un pont par les soldats

Other romance languages are much the same, but, so is German (you just put nicht in the appropriate spot) and Russian (you do the same with не ('nye')).

English, on the other hand, just has to be different. So much so that I actively avoid using negative constructions in English, because with most verbs, NEGATION REQUIRES AN AUXILIARY:

 "Caesar did not cause the troops to build a bridge"

Instead of conjugating to cause, we put it back in the bare infinitive and conjugate the verb to do not!

The only verbs we negate in a reasonable way are to do, to have, to can* and to be. All the rest, we don't negate reasonably (see?).

In a few idioms, we have preserved the more sensible negation of recent but now archaic English:

She loves me, 
She loves me not.


Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country

Personally I think this construction more elegant and more pleasing to both eye and ear, and I would much like to see the same convention that gives us don't, can't and won't extended to other verbs (hence the title of this post). Perhaps in future posts I'll use that form. Unless I decide I liken't it after all.

* technically can has no infinitive in English, but in other, more sensible languages, it does, so linguists sometimes use "to can" as a convenience in discussions.


Freebies Published!

Cherise Kelley just told me that her book that I edited as a recent freebie is now live and available to purchase for your Kindle. I enjoyed reading this; outside of my usual choice of reading!

Cherise has an easy, flowing style that will draw you in whether you want it to or not. Allow yourself to be intrigued by the premise.



Got back on Tuesday from the UK where I attended a Showbiz Wedding (no, I really did. A friend I have known since we were 13 is a big comedy star in the UK). You may be aware that since I had no editing to do last week, I asked for submissions for free editing.

Several people responded, and by the time I had filled my stated quota of words, I had before me the work of four very different writers.

They will be relieved to hear that I will not be revealing anything of their work or my thoughts on their work here. That is between me and each of them.

However, I will say that I greatly enjoyed the experience. One of the main pleasures of working with new writers, and especially with indies, is the variety, not just in genre or technique, but broadness of imagination.

At the wedding in question I had the good fortune to bump into former Merton Professor of English (University of Oxford) John Carey (father of another old friend), who enthused about working with new writers and was curious about the new kind of publishing and to some extent new kind of literature that we are all creating.

These freebies have given me the opportunity to see work that I perhaps would not otherwise have seen, and statistically speaking, probably would not have read, and this has all further excited me about the development and the creative possibilities of this new, anarchic literature.

I italicized anarchic because for a great many people, anarchy has negative connotations. But taken in its purest form, anarchy is the imposition of order by each individual upon himself. It is where no order or government is imposed from outside. True, those of you who are writing in order to make your living from writing are, to some extent at least, guided by the desires of the reading public, but even you are making open choices as to which readers to please.

And I, who believe I have some knowledge about what a story ought to be, am trying to help authors to deal with problems and make improvements, rather than tell them what their novel ought to be. I am trying to ensure that my authors' work reaches and is understood by as many people as possible, rather than telling them that they must follow certain rules and styles in order not to be inherently wrong. 

In an anarchy, each person chooses his own rules in order to ensure that he, and those he wishes to help, can get what they need. As writers and editors, we can apply the rules of style and grammar because we know that is the best way to reach the most readers, NOT because we have been told that anything else is wrong. The results may be the same, but I suspect that they are not. The difference when applying rules as an informed choice is that the rules themselves become part of the creation and part of the art, a skeleton rather than a straitjacket.

I may be rambling a little. Experiences like this one contribute to my evolving philosophy of writing. They also lead me to conclude that I should do freebies more often. I shall, therefore, set aside a week in January. Submissions of up to 80k words will be accepted on a first come-first served basis (though priority will be given to first-timers).


Editor's Angst

I don't know if other editors get this, or if I'm just an anxious person. Before I have even started reading a fresh manuscript, I start worrying about how the author will receive my comments. Not even criticisms; I just worry that I might not be able to communicate my findings.

Worse than that, I worry that I might not even find anything to say. I'm sure that's hard to believe—others tell me that I always have something to say.

The biggest worry is that as a literary editor, I'm looking for something beyond errors and issues, holes and inconsistencies. I'm looking for opportunities and improvements. Supposing the book is already as good as it can be? Supposing the author already knows that?

So far, I haven't edited for someone who really knows how good they are. I've edited for really good writers, they just haven't been aware of it. I know, because I'm at that point myself with some areas of editing, that it is possible in writing to know exactly what you're doing – to be conscious of all your choices, techniques and devices.

I suppose one day I shall edit for such a writer, and I shall have to say to them: "um, you don't really need me, but I did read your book and think very hard about it, so, you have to pay the full fee anyway."

Really, that's what it comes down to: the better your writing, the less value you're going to get from a literary edit. And I want to give value. And also, I want to get paid.

This is in part why I like to be paid in instalments. From time to time I underestimate the amount of work that a text will be. When I do, I suck it in, and get on with it. Less often, though it does happen, I overestimate. In those cases, I can tell the author to knock a chunk off the final instalment or even forget it altogether.

Making sure that the value I give matches my fee is not just about professional or personal honesty. I see it as a socio-economic responsibility. Overcharging devalues.


The Creative Urge #1: Creativity

Living in the next village from me is an artist, Gérard Larguier. His work is quite collectable, but I know him because I've fixed his computer a few times.

Gérard's work is special and personal for me, since it helps me to think about what is, for me, the main problem with talking about stories, and with creative art in general.

memory fresco of Soulaines Dhuys
This is because Gérard does not invent, he relates. What he makes is undoubtedly art, but his graphic art is like a story. His technique is part collage, part sculpture, part painting, and it achieves the same sense of varying textures across a limited but continuous palate that you get from staring at the landscape here in rural north-east France. 

What makes it story-like is that Gérard shows the connexion between what he sees and what he depicts, by literally including what he sees in his works. He takes photographs, or uses images from books, magazines, newspapers, prints them, and then photocopies them, often moving the original across the platen to produce ramdomly distorted copies. These copies he then tears, carefully, until they include exactly the image or fragment of image that he wants.

The inset image is Gérard working on a fresco prepared for the village of Soulaines Dhuys. This is composed of photographs taken by Gérard himself, as well as archive photos, newspaper clippings and texts from the village archives. The fresco is 4-5 metres wide, and all across the top is a panorama of the horizon around the village, but a panorama as you might recall it from memory or picture it if someone described it to you; the dominant features of the landscape are repeated from a number of different angles. Within the image are views of village landmarks, again repeated both at different angles and in different times, and all is jumbled up like a memory, but organized like a memory; associative, repetitive, disproportionate.

All of Gérard's work is like this; it's language is of images recalled and repeated, broken down and reassembled. Many artists are influenced or inspired by other artists, but when Gérard is thus inspired or influenced, he shows it by including fragments of a distorted photocopy of the work that inspired him in his own work.

Gérard's choice of medium and technique reveals his creative process, reveals his inspiration, reveals (to some extent) his purpose. And because his works are large, detailed, intricate, full of repetition, their composition is like a rambling prose; series of small works like collections of thematically related short stories; medium scale one-offs that are like angry letters of protest, prose poems, eulogies, anecdotes.

Over the years that he has developed his technique, Gérard has developed a prodigious skill not only at composition—the artist's eye—but also at photocopying, tearing paper, matching paint colours to print colours so that all the images blend together—the artist's hands. 

We who write are perhaps dimly aware or starkly aware that we are regurgitating words, phrases, imagery, themes, anything up to entire characters and plots, that we have collected through our reading, our daily lives, discussions and conversations, visual media, the theatre, the cinema, the television.

But our culture gives us the impression that art is a matter of great creative ideas; originality; novelty. So we learn to think of our choice of words as being part of our skill, not of our creativity. I think this is a mistake, and one that arises from too great importance given to novelty and originality. I think that all artistic creation is re-expression. If we were perfectly original, we would be perfectly incomprehensible. Gérard's art works because it is an expression of the artist's culture; it isn't unique; it is perfected.

What Gérard does is what writers should do. Begin with a purpose: some idea to express. Select a means of communicating it through a medium that is as accessible as possible. Practice and perfect the means and the medium.

Great creativity is as much in the stroke of the brush or the pen, as it is in the choice of composition or the structure of the story. The writer's brush strokes are his choice of words, the composition of his phrases, the quality of his imagery, the matching of symbol and theme, the harmony of message and medium.

Great creativity is as much a skillfull re-telling of an old story as it is the creation of a new story.


I don't know, I've never Kipled

Reading at bedtime at the moment is the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, on my Kindle. I had quite forgotten what a masterclass in storytelling you get from Kipling, and I am now seriously looking forward to the Jungle Book, and after that, the Girl (for 'tis she the audience) should be ready for Kim.

Weird Words #8: Substantive

It will come as no surprise that the meanings of substantive and substantial are very close.

Etymologically they are very closely related:

substantive (adj.)
late 15c., "standing by itself," from O.Fr. substantif, from L.L. substantivum, neut. of L. substantivus "of substance or being," from substantia (see substance). The grammatical term (late 14c.) was introduced by the French to denote the noun in contradistinction to the adjective, from L. nomen substantivum "name or word of substance."

substantial (adj.)
mid-14c., "ample, sizeable," from O.Fr. substantiel (13c.), from L. substantialis "having substance or reality, material," from substantia (see substance). Meaning "existing, having real existence" is from late 14c.

Both words derive from substance:

substance (n.)
c.1300, "essential nature," from O.Fr. substance (12c.), from L. substantia "being, essence, material," from substans, prp. of substare "stand firm, be under or present," from sub "up to, under" + stare "to stand," from PIE root *sta- "to stand" (see stet). A loan-translation of Gk. hypostasis. Meaning "any kind of corporeal matter" is first attested mid-14c. Sense of "the matter of a study, discourse, etc." first recorded late 14c.

So we can differentiate them only through their suffixes, as follows:

sufix forming adjectives from verbs, meaning "pertaining to, tending to," in some cases from O.Fr. -if, but usually directly from L. -ivus. In some words borrowed from French at an early date it has been reduced to -y (e.g. hasty, tardy).

-al (1)
suffix forming adjectives from nouns or other adjectives, "of, like, related to," Middle English -al, -el, from French or directly from L. -alis (see -al (2)).

The two suffixes are pretty closely related, but in common usage, -al generally suggests a stable state, whereas -ive suggests motion towards or metamorphosis.

As far as I can tell, this analysis helps very little in deciding which of these words to chuse in a given situation. Indeed, most dictionaries list them as virtually interchangeable.

Urban dictionary doesn't list either word.
Webster and Wiktionary list substantial under substantive, either as a synonym or as a meaning, but do not list substantive under substantial.

I suspect that this might corroborate my feeling that substantive is quite often used when substantial ought to be, that is as a vague expression of quantity.

As close as I am able to get to defining a difference between these two words, it is as follows:

Substantial is used when referring to a vague quantity that the speaker things is significant in some way:

"The shop made a substantial profit this year."

Substantive is used when referring to a quality of possessing substance - either concreteness or reality:

"The change of government policy will result in substantive changes in spending." In this example, nothing is being said about the size of the changes in spending; it is stating that there will be real changes.

However, as I have already noted, it is increasingly common to find substantive used in place of substantial. I suspect this may be out of a desire to sound less vague or more educated, or both. In the former aim, it succeeds, simply because less people know the meaning of substantive, and consequently assume it has a more precise meaning than substantial.

Generally, I would advise avoiding both words. Substantial because it is too vague, and substantive because it is both too obscure and too often abused.

"The shop made a satisfactory profit this year." is much more communicative.

"The change of government policy will result in changes in spending." is much more accessible.


How do I write a story?

Following on from my last post, I've been asking myself how I would go about writing a good story. I have already intimated on this blog that I have written some good stories, and some bad ones. Analysis of my bad stories has revealed the following:

I have a fetish for character creation. Each time I get a cool idea for a new character I go about creating and establishing them. Sometimes my character establishment is much better than the story that it is in. There are a couple of examples here.

The other problem is that I find it all too easy to set up a dramatic event: let's say a sudden confrontation between two characters; the discovery of an accident; a surprise arrival of an unexpected guest. I think of scenes like those very easily and I can write them with as much drama and emotion as is necessary. In my bad stories, I've started with a series of events like those, established some cool characters, and then tried to build a story around them.

I don't know how common this is. But I do know that for me, this doesn't result in a good story.

What does seem to work is when I go looking for the shape of the story first.The shape of a story can be as simple as a line. The story I posted a few days ago, Cosine, looked like this:

I hope that was fairly obvious. The shape of the story came to me before the story itself, but ended up dictating not just the fatal path of the main character, but also his physical path and the path of the arrow of time.

Not all story shapes are so simple. Sometimes they feel as detailed as landscapes; sometimes they seem like polyhedra - though seldom regular.

Once I have a satisfying shape, I can start looking for the people and events that are triggered by the shape, or that fit into it. Sometimes it's Euclidean, and sometimes it really isn't. With some stories I don't even know the genre I'm writing in until I start writing.

The classic story shape, the archetype of archetypes, is the Wheel of Fortune. It is a symbol that you find both explicit and implicit all through Shakespeare, for example.

For many hundreds of years the symbolism of the Wheel of Fortune ruled European stories, and for any given story you can mark the start point and end point on the wheel of each character. Those who were on the way up at the start are on the way down by the end; those who were high are brung low; those who were low raised high.

In the best WoF stories there is a strong interconnexion between the fortunes of all the characters.

Voltaire satirises this simplistic view of storytelling (among other things) in Candide*, where the wheel seems to spin out of control, sometimes in two directions at once.

Sometimes it is fun to try to draw the shape that a given story evokes in your mind. Wool, (books 3 through 5 in particular) with its dominant staircase, and its themes of power and responsibility, of stability and precarity**, inevitably is shaped like a shaft, and the position and direction of characters in the shaft symbolises their status, and their progress through the story, almost whether Hugh wants them to or not.

I'm not altogether clear on what the conclusion of this essay is. I'm aware that some stories seem to appear in the author's mind fully formed; I'm also aware that when it comes to my own stories, I do the best ones when I get the story first, and the characters, events, locations come after. I also know that I write good stories when writing on demand.

When I need a story that illustrates a particular point, anything from philosophy or sociology to spelling and grammar, I can write a strong story. Maybe the conclusion is personal then: that I write good stories when I'm not being self-indulgent. How about you?

* required reading
** the proper word is the horribly ugly "precariousness". Please promote my alternative.


The Tar Pit Puzzle

I'm finding increasingly with my regular clients that we spend a lot of time talking about the next book. I do this free of charge, and always will, both because I love to do it, and because frankly it's impossible to calculate an invoice for.

Anyone who wants story development advice is welcome to it, for free.

So what is it?

Like a lot of writers, I suspect, the first stories I wrote were what would today I suppose be called fanfic. (I still write fanfic from time to time, but my own writing has become a great deal more disciplined. More on that another time.) This is because it is inspired by having read a book or seen a play or a film and having thought to myself "I'd like to write something like that". As a result, I'd start with a genre, or a type of character, even a set of initial conditions (like a chemistry experiment), and start writing, and discover the story as I wrote.

This can result in a good story.

It can.


But as I learn more about stories, more about writing, and more about writers, the more I discover that writing this way requires a set of initial conditions. One set is obvious, I think: it requires a writer who has the age and experience of storytelling to be able to feel out a story as she goes, and who knows when and how to constrain the story in a way that will ensure its coherence.

Another set of initial conditions is less obvious, and sets a bit of a trap for the writer: many writers spend a number of years thinking about their first story before ever getting it onto the page. They work and rework it, live and relive it, and doing this has much the same effect as retelling it aloud; gradually the rough edges get knocked off, the redundancies removed and the tangents fall by the wayside; little by little the strong story becomes dominant, so that when she finally starts to write the story, she knows it well enough to follow it through*.

The trap is set; the writer has written her** first book, and it stands as a coherent and often deceptively simple story.

So she sits down to write the second book, and the trap is sprung: so much time, so much imagination, so much reiteration was spent on the first story that she knew it well when she wrote it, so there was precious little need for discussion, let alone planning or outlining. Not so the second book.

Many many second books come out without any clear theme, without a clear path or purpose, without an objective or central idea, or if they do it's all so jumbled up that reading it is like trying to identify an animal from the odd parts of its skeleton sticking up out of a tar pit. It might not even be just one animal. Often, it isn't.

At this point, one of my authors in particular is saying to himself "this is me, right?"

In reply to him, I can only say: "It's you at the moment; a few months ago it was someone else, and in a few months' time it will be someone else again."

What I do with a book you've already written, is to try to help you to reinforce the story, enhance the themes, develop and declutter symbolism, add depth to the characters and (especially), tighten the interdependence between character development and the story itself; and all this without having to tell you to rewrite the whole thing.

When you're learning to write, you aren't going to write a masterpiece.

Realizing should be liberating. You can, after a certain amount of hard work, say to yourself: "I made that story work. Now I'm going to move on." Keep doing that and one day you might find yourself thinking: "today I start work on my masterpiece."

It is important to just write. To get words onto the page. Nanowrimo is a really good way to develop your narration, your style, your voice. You should totally do it.. But it won't teach you a damn thing about what makes a good story.

What I do with a book you haven't written yet is help you to develop the story.

The development help that I offer, is all about discovering the story that you want to write. About asking the right questions, about finding the shape; about identifying the animal hidden under the tar. It can be a matter of drawing parallels with books you have read. It can be a matter of discovering your objective or identifying the theme that you want to explore. It can be a matter of identifying and explicitly describing the structure of the type of story you want to write.

But you don't need to talk to a specialist in story development**** to do this. You do need to have someone to talk to. Spouses can be good, if they have the patience. Parents, too, since they're likely to listen.***** Writers' groups and forums are good. It isn't other people's ideas and opinions that will help you develop your idea, though. It is your effort to articulate it. Each time you explain it to someone, you force yourself to turn a vague idea into a communicable explanation. That process will develop your idea for you.

Hmmm... am I talking myself out of customers here? I'll leave that up to my authors to reply.

I believe that until you have practised enough times to have really learned to do it, you can't develop a story alone. You have to have someone to talk to about it.


* think of Biggs Darklighter, and the whole evolution of the scripts of Star Wars Ep. IV.
** actually it's a bit of a cliché that this kind of process affects men more than women, though I only have anecdotal evidence of this myself. I don't happen to like using s/he, so I alternate between male and female imagined authors more or less at random***.
*** thinks: can you alternate at random?
**** you don't need to talk to me, either.
***** that came out badly. I didn't intend to suggest that spouses won't listen. Logically, though, they wouldn't have to. I'm just making it worse, aren't I?



My eight-year-old daughter, a very conscientious student, was revising her times-tables for a test this morning. She actually got up ten minutes early (without an alarm) so that she could have extra time to prepare.

As she was working through them at the breakfast table, she commented on how much she loves the seven times table, and it reminded me of the peculiar relationship that I had with those numbers when she got to seven times seven.

I always found the tables of the odd numbers easier to remember, and some of the products easier than others. Six times seven I could work out easily but couldn't memorise. Seven times seven was . . . special.

When I heard my daughter saying it, my first reaction was:

"Surely she's too young for that number?"

It was as if there was some innate mystery or adult danger associated with forty-nine; a rite of passage like fresh coffee, reaching the age of consent, or learning to drive.

So much so that my second reaction was:

"Where the hell did that come from?"

Forty-nine was a special number for me, not just because it was easy to remember, but because it was part of that special group of numbers that can only be divided by themselves, 1 and their whole number square root. Rarer than primes, and so both stranger and more precious.

I had forgotten about the borderline numeromania that had arisen from my mother's obsession with my sisters and my learning of times-tables. If we were in the car, she would ask us continuously throughout the journey. At other times, she would shoot us a surprise multiplication. Sometimes from the next room, or the other end of the garden. I think some of that fixation rubbed off on me, though it has waned over the years.

Last night, my daughter burst into tears when I told her to get ready for bed. Because she was worried that she would not have enough time to revise her multiplications. I think she's lucky that she doesn't have a special relationship with these numbers. For her this is just another opportunity to learn something (in which she takes enormous pleasure) and to please her teacher (which she seems to want to do without any discrimination – she'll try to please any teacher, regardless).

I wonder how I will feel when she gets to molar mass and empirical formulae, to say nothing of simultaneous equations.


Cosine, a short story

I've been thinking and blogging recently on the role of time and of memory. I have also been thinking hard about why the order of events is so important, and why jumbling them seems to work for some writers at some times, but not for others, or not at all times.

The inspiration for this story goes, however, to the BBC's dramatization of PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin – a curious period piece in itself that both reviles and celebrates the classic English country house murder. The following story is in no way an English country house murder. Go figure.

Harry Dewulf

It began with a bloodstained nightdress. I thought—at first I thought—that it must have been an accident. But when I reached forward to touch her—I wanted to know if she was still alive—to feel some warmth—I felt the unexpected hard resistance of a knife handle. I have no idea why I took hold of it; it was slick with blood and I nicked my hand, inside the first joint of my forefinger. I expected it to be an irritation, but I soon forgot it entirely. I couldn't let go of the handle. It must have been some sort of horror, or fascination. Besides, she was dead; what difference would it make?

I slowly withdrew it, and more blood bubbled up. I don't know anything about anatomy, and that oversized nightdress hid much of the middle of her body, but wherever it was, it had been effective, and bloody.

I . . . didn't look at her face. You surprise someone like that; I suppose I was the one surprised; I hadn't expected to see anyone. I hadn't expected anyone, alive or dead. I turned back to the window, and wiped the blood from my hands on the curtain. My hand had stopped bleeding though there was an ugly livid mark. Somehow I still didn't want to give up the knife. I gave it a last wipe on the carpet before ducking through the window onto the fire escape.

It seemed hotter outside than it had been inside. I looked at the aircon unit sticking its arse out of the adjacent window; wondered if it worked better than mine did; it was silent. I realized I needed to keep quiet on the metal stairs; don't want to be heard or seen sneaking away from a murder scene, especially with a knife in your hand, presumably the murder weapon. But it is the lot of the petty criminal. You are so often somewhere that you should not be; it is so easy to stumble upon the scene of a less petty crime.

My feet faltered a little on the last flight of stairs and as I slipped and caught myself there was an ugly clatter as the blade of the knife caught on the handrail. I was suddenly reminded of my silly little injury, and lifted my hand to my mouth. It had begun to bleed again.

One of those irritating random thoughts: "my God, so many things you can catch from a transfer of blood!"

I climbed more carefully the rest of the way. I had to tuck the knife into my pocket—handle first—so I could hang from the lowest deck and drop to the ground just behind the dumpster that quite failed to be conveniently below.

Straightening up I withdrew the knife carefully, almost delicately, from my pocket. I stared at it for a while in the half-light. What possessed me?

Now I would have to dispose of it. I was "known to the Police", and they to me. I knew very well that the careful criminal builds an all too familiar edifice, that almost guarantees that he will be caught; whereas the carefree, opportunist. He can only be caught by chance. Noone can fight chance.

I set off along the alley, holding the knife with an air of casual curiosity, imagining that I had just picked it up; found it unlooked-for and unexpected, as was, indeed, true.

At the end of the alley was a pizzeria. Not one of those classy uptown joints full of businessmen making deals with mafiosos, nor one of those midtown joints full of wise-guys promising that the tomato-pie was as good as back in some old country they've never been. It was a rat-infested grot hole. I couldn't imagine the bums wanting to look for scraps in the bins outside a place like that.

I chuckled aloud. When you're homeless you have to be careful what you eat.

The point is that there was an open window to the kitchen, and through the window an open invitation in the form of an open dishwasher. One of those stainless steel ones that open both sides with a cloud of steam hot enough to burn your face off. A rack had just been loaded with utensils and dishes. I just leaned in and dropped the knife into the rack.

I just knew I was going to remember that bit of opportunism forever. Too good ever to repeat.

I went a couple of blocks before checking my reflection. I looked like every other man on the street: like a man who'd had enough of the heat and had gone out into the street and found it was no cooler. Not a trace of blood on me except, I remembered, that cut on my hand. It had stopped bleeding again.

It was another five blocks to my apartment building. I've always been used to the city but in America they do things differently. You have to go everywhere in straight lines. Maybe they think it makes you honest. Maybe it's why I turned to crime. If you grow up in the labyrinth of a medieval European city, you have to keep twisting and turning. All those wide streets, all those straight line and right-angled intersections. My internal navigator was still looking for the quickest route through a city with no straight lines, as if it had never learned that in this city there are only straight lines.

Like the line straight to jail. There were two cop-cars outside my block. For a few more paces I started telling myself I knew perfectly well they weren't there for me. But I was "known to the Police" and they were known to me. Best assumption? Someone ratted me out. But for what? Couldn't be anything too serious I hadn't done anything too serious. So why bother? Because someone ratted me out. Easy arrest, easy conviction. Something for the statistics. I'd oh-so-nearly gone that way before.

No prizes for guessing who. A criminal rival? I suppose you might say that. A jealous lover? Not jealous. Not all that lovely, either. Americans use the word so freely that it has no real weight in their mouths, but when I grew up, it was a word for a lady dog and it was just fine to say it if that was what you were talking about. And it was a word for a bad woman, and you could just about say it if you knew everyone listening was in agreement.

Bitch. The bitch ratted me out. Can't say I was surprised. A couple of things I think I knew about her from the very start. One day she'd rat me out for the sheer hell of it, and that she was a bitch.

Maybe that's what turned me on. She was all about power, but in the bedroom she gaily submitted. I don't mean some sort of S&M shit. I mean she did what I wanted. I didn't even have to ask.

And things had gone sour a couple of weeks ago. Something I wouldn't let her into. She slapped me around a bit. Still makes me smile to think about it. I'm sure there are plenty of men who'd rather die than let a woman strike them; others who'd hit back; others who wouldn't hit back but steadily have their confidence, their manhood—I suppose there is such a thing—eroded. I've been hit plenty of times, so it made me laugh that she was able to hit hard enough to split my lip.

Maybe I should have pretended to be bothered. Contrite. It's hard. I try not to be too controlled. You have to have your eyes open for the good luck, for the opportunities.

I did a smart about face on the pavement, imagining that I decided I forgot something but couldn't remember what it was, and then after a few paces found myself thinking I could do with something to eat.

My feet led me a few blocks back the way I came. I didn't pay really close attention to where I was. I try not to. It relieves the monotony. I dug in my pockets for a few dollars, then remembered why I didn't have any. Bitch.

I confess I started to feel a little anger at this point. I stopped and took a look at myself in a shop window. I looked overheated. Ragged. And thin. I like to tell myself I'm good looking but a long hot night and an empty stomach does a man's looks no good at all.

When I looked up I realized where I was. Her place was just a few twists and turns away. A straight line, ninety degrees, and another straight line. I started wondering. Would she be surprised to see me? At this time of night would she even be there? Bitch was probably out spending my money looking for someone else to bang her.

Perfect. Like I said, I'm a petty criminal. Mostly thieving. I liked the idea of stealing from her. Had a certain symmetry. Besides I knew the place. Easiest sneak-in sneak-out ever. And if the bitch was there?

The thought brought a little knot to my throat and I flushed hotter still, if that was even possible.

If she was there I'd have to give her a little surprise, and then take what I wanted. Give her a fright; rough her up a little.

It was starting to sound like one of those boy's adventure books from when I was a child; Dick Tracey . . . or was it Barton? But petty criminals do rough-up women. I'm pretty sure it's just the big-time players who rape them and then beat them to death.

My hunger had been replaced by a different sensation in my stomach. I ducked down the alleyway behind her block, and as I passed an open window—a kitchen or something—I gave in to the impulse to snatch through, quick as a snake, without breaking my stride. My hand brought back a kitchen knife with a smooth wooden handle.

Noone could have seen my little performance except from behind, but I still did what I always do; I imagined I just picked it up off the floor and was looking at it in puzzlement. I probably even looked around to see who might have dropped it.

I was "known to the Police" and they to me. I know how it works. You look guilty because you are; you are guilty because you look it. When they're questioning you the worst you can do is give answers. Explanations will always bury you. You have to be interested in something else. Last time they pulled me in I obsessed over the sergeant's jeans. They were green for God's sake! And completely wrong for his shoes. I told him so. It became quite the preoccupation.

Denying something is just the same as admitting it. The guilty usually deny. But anyone can get distracted. You can't be guilty if you're distracted.

Her window was a few floors up, and it was open. Or I could imagine it was open. All those aircon units hanging out the windows like Bruegel painted robots. Maybe he did? The dumpster was in exactly the wrong place to get up onto the fire escape, and I wasn't going to put my shoulder to it. I was already hot enough without having a shirt that stank of dumpster.
Handling the knife gingerly by the blade, I slipped the handle into my pocket, and without looking around to see if anyone was watching, jumped up and caught the bottom of the ladder. I knew from memory that it was chained up, so I pulled myself up until I could hook the side of a foot onto it. I was excessively conscious of that sharp kitchen knife sticking out of my pocket. Couldn't imagine what I needed it for, but it was part of the night's loot and I didn't want to lose it.

Getting onto the first platform was an effort. More, as it turned out, than I realized. As I got to the top of the first flight of stairs I was suddenly overtaken by dizziness and realized I was beginning to fall. I flailed out for the handrail and caught it, but as my hand slid down it must've got caught on a loose screw or something. The inside of the first joint of my right forefinger was torn and bleeding. It hurt.

I probably should have turned back there. But I wanted more than just to make the effort worthwhile and more, I realized, since I probably couldn't go back home now. I wanted to be sure that the bitch knew that I knew, and that she got hers in return for my getting mine.

There were three more flights to go, and I was feeling the heat. I had to pull the knife back out of my pocket because climbing the stairs was grinding the back of the blade into my ribs. I needed my left hand for the rail, so I held it in my right, pressing the handle into that irritating little wound as if to keep it from bleeding. It couldn't have bled much, as by the time I reached the top it was sticky, as much with sweat as with drying blood.

Her window was open. I wondered if her aircon was on. Be nice to clean the place out in the cool. I couldn't hear it above the roaring in my ears though. I waited for it to subside, and I was about to grab the frame and climb inside when I thought of my hand, all bloody. Nothing like leaving a handprint in your own blood. I couldn't see how much there was in the half-light, so I resolved to keep my hand on the knife, so that I wouldn't accidentally use it for anything.

Left-handed, I slipped through the window. The curtains were long, heavy and clammy; I tucked my right hand under me and pushed through sideways with my left; the curtains wiped over me like a dishcloth. As I turned and straightened up, a billowing white shape loomed over me. At first I thought it was another curtain, and I made to shove it away. I didn't need to look up at her face to know, and tried to shove her away, first with one hand, then the other.

That oversized nightdress hid most of her torso, and I really couldn't tell what I was pushing against. I only know that when the knife met with resistance I gripped it all the tighter, and slowly drove it in. The knife itself pushed back against me even as she fell away, and the blade slid back into my slick grip, cutting into the inside of the first joint of my first finger; I let go, and the handle of the knife was sucked into the excessive white folds. As she came to rest in front of me I reached out. Her body was hot and wet. Almost as hot and wet as I was; even the hard resistance of the knife handle was unexpectedly hot.

I wondered as I sat waiting; I guess I knew what I was waiting for. It came home to me as the half light revealed how it all ended: with a blood-stained nightdress.