Tuesday, March 4, 2014
This is my first blog ‘series’. It is inspired by some oft-quoted words of Ernest Hemingway. ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,’ he once said, ‘and the Baroque is over.’ He was taking a stand against that pretentious, egotistical writing which is more about showing how clever the author is than it is about creating real people and telling real stories. Characters are no more than caricatures, mouthpieces for the author’s own views. Writing is an opportunity for the writer to show the world how cultured he or she is. Hemingway’s assertion is a protest against literary excess and intellectual pretention. Anyone familiar with the Baroque style of art can appreciate Hemingway’s distaste for this in the field of literature.
It’s also important to remember that Hemingway came from a background in journalism. Journalism continues to influence other writing styles even today. In my opinion, however, it tends towards a certain minimalism and reductionism, which is not always desirable when writing fiction. As with all movements, the movement away from the Baroque can become extreme in turn, and perhaps we have lost sight, to some extent, of prose as a form of art.
Focusing on creative prose, and especially fiction, I want to argue for a more balanced position in which the writer is not only the architect, but also the builder and, indeed, the interior decorator of their work. To achieve the best writing, in my opinion, it is necessary to pay close attention to each of these aspects of writing: architecture, building and interior decoration. Of course, by interior direction I will mean something other than the pretentious excesses that Hemingway had in mind.
In this first part I will consider the writer as architect. I approach this both as a writer in my own right, and as an editor of the work of others.
As with a building, so with a story, there needs to be on hand some kind of overall design to guide the building process. The elements of the plot need to hold together. Often in a story there are two or three main narrative themes. These need to dovetail and weave together. The characters are part of this overall structure: their role in the story; their relationships to each other. All of these things need to work together, rise together, so that in the end there is a structure that is stable, cohesive and even (we hope) beautiful.
How and when you, as the writer, arrive at and conceive this structure will depend on how you work. Some people like to start with the entire structure mapped out, at least in outline. Before they write a word they know where the plot goes, from A to D, via B and C. They know who all the characters are and the precise roles they are going to play in the story. They have a complete set of architect’s drawings, to maintain the analogy. Others prefer not to work like this. They design as they go. They have a few sketches to work with, some broad ideas and outlines, but they prefer to let the story evolve. It’s not for me to prescribe the best way to work.
This is not about a chronological process. It is not a series of steps. It’s not about having a complete design before you write a word. Writing, for many, is a more organic process: the design emerges with the writing, rather than precisely defining its parameters. The point is that, whether you start with a design or not, in the end what you hope for is a structure that is cohesive and holds together. You don’t want to end up with a structure that won’t stand. You don’t want walls that don’t fit. You don’t want one part of the building to clash badly with another part.
This is where structural editing comes into its own. The job of the structural editor is to ensure that the whole edifice is sound. Are there inconsistencies in the plot? Do the characters behave in consistent and believable ways (within the context of the plot)? The structural editor helps the writer to remove ugly excrescences, to remove redundant or conflicting features. The editor will tell you that this gets in the way of that; that you need to underpin this or that point of the story more securely. I prefer to call this process manuscript assessment, because at this point I, as the editor, am not making changes. I am advising the writer about what works and what doesn’t. An in-depth assessment of your manuscript covers its strengths and weaknesses, and offers specific suggestions and advice for improvement. It will include comments on structure, plot, characters, style and format, among other things.
These are broad questions. I believe this is a process the writer needs to go through after the first or second draft is complete. There’s no point at this stage in polishing your manuscript too much. You might write a beautiful chapter... And the editor will suggest you cut it entirely, because it plays no real part in the development of the story. A beautifully written chapter might be entirely off point. You, as the writer, might need to omit sections, add new sections or entirely rewrite existing sections. If you polish too much at this stage you are probably wasting your time.
Consider these examples.
1. Plausibility. The actions of characters and their motivations always require a certain plausibility. This is the case even in speculative fiction, where the rules of this world and everyday life do not necessarily apply. Even in this context, there needs to be an internal, consistent logic. For example, if one character is the only one in an entire town not to be aware of certain facts, some plausible mechanism needs to be established to account for his ignorance. If a monster attacks our hero, that monster cannot be a randomly designed creature with no organic link to the world in which it appears. This fantasy world has to have its own ecology and biosphere. If a character travels through time, there need to be certain rules governing this activity that make sense within the 'science' of this world, and which can't be arbitrarily set aside if the plot requires it. Characters behaving 'out of character', implausible coincidences to aid the plot... A character, suffering from memory loss, who can describe the bedroom he slept in, but 'forgets' that he his gay. The editor, from a more objective distance, can identity these issues and challenge the author. And sometimes, yes, the author needs to be challenged.
2. Consistency. Consider a mystery in which a series of murders is committed. There are only two or three possible suspects. As with any good mystery, in the course of the story the author tosses out a few red herrings. While in principle this is a good idea, at the end of the story I am left with the feeling that some of these red herrings didn't really make sense. Why did the character do/say/think that if they were not the murderer? The answer seems to be: To throw the reader off the scent. And, when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed? The nagging sense that this person would not have had the physical strength to commit these murders. All mystery writers will cheat to some extent. All readers will allow the author some liberties. Sometimes, though, the edifice collapses when the final bricks are laid.
3. Following through. A major event occurs early in a thriller. The unfolding of this event occupies fully one third of the novel. Then it is never referred to again. Although it was a major source of trauma for our heroine, within pages it has faded from her memory. A thrilling cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. 'If he'd only known what Fred was going to do, he would have...' What was Fred going to do? Read on... and never find out. Nothing 'Fred' does lives up to the expectations raised. Ideas developed at one point in a story often fail to bear fruit later. A 'clue' in a mystery is never explained. Sometimes the story has moved on in the writer's mind. This clue, this hint, this teaser is forgotten, but remains there to frustrate the reader. The editor can spot these unfinished threads that the writer overlooks.
I don’t give these examples to suggest that these real or imagined authors are necessarily bad writers or that these are bad books. Far from it. You might be confident that you, as the writer, would have noticed and corrected these issues. Or that they would never have arisen in the first place. However, these examples are in no way exceptional. People are often so taken up with the story they have conceived that they forget to lay the foundations. Other parts of the narrative become twisted or blurred to accommodate this main idea. The author wants to get from A to C and hopes the reader doesn’t notice that B is missing. An underdeveloped character; an undeveloped idea. Plot inconsistencies and discontinuities. These are common, if not, indeed, abundant.
Writers will not always like to hear what the editor has to say at this point in the process. For many, conceiving and constructing this idea is the heart of the creative process. Writers find it very difficult to let go of a treasured chapter or character. Alternatively, they find it difficult to give more substance to an underdeveloped character in which they have no real interest. I try to present criticisms in a positive light; and I always provide suggestions for resolving the issues, rather than simply pointing them out. Nevertheless, it is always with some trepidation that I press the ‘send’ button when I have written a manuscript assessment. And it’s always with some trepidation that I press the ‘open’ button when I receive an assessment of my own writing.
It’s very important that the final product is structurally sound, that it will bear the weight of the words it carries. We hope for a harmonious structure, in which everything has its place. Of course, it is not only the design on which this depends. It also depends on how well the structure is built, and it is to the role of the writer as builder that my attention will turn in Part Two of this series.
Friday, February 28, 2014
At this point I would like to refer to that smelly waste material that large bovines excrete from their bowels. Because, like so many truisms, this one simply isn’t true. It is abundantly self-evident that taking too much care can have very negative consequences.
It’s very dangerous to be in a vehicle on the road. I would be much safer if I never placed my backside in a car or any other form of motorized transport. However, the inconveniences and difficulties that would arise in my life (and the lives of those around me) were I to follow this path would far outweigh the risks I take by being on the road. We make the less careful (but more sensible) choice almost every day of our lives.
Eating is very dangerous. Anything I eat may poison me (accidentally or through the malice of others) or choke me. I never know for certain that the food I am about to eat is entirely free of contamination. However, if I choose never to eat again, I could possibly be accused of being ‘too careful’. Until I no longer have any need of food at all.
These are clearly trivial examples. They do demonstrate, however, that we can, indeed, be too careful. The point is that there are forces everywhere urging us to err (too far) on the side of caution.
Billion dollar industries are built out of making us fearful. Insurance is a perfect example. We are educated and indoctrinated to be terrified of all the unforeseen events that could overtake us. Fear makes us take out that unnecessary extended and more comprehensive warrantee. We put up signs everywhere warning of dangers… and protecting us from the vague and insubstantial fear that we might be sued if something goes wrong and we didn’t have a sign in place.
Governments, the military, and security services thrive on our fears and insecurities. This is a form of terror-ism. ‘Better to be safe than sorry’ is their other motto. No. Sometimes it’s better to be sorry. We expend too much energy and resources on preventing ‘bad things’ from happening… and have little left in the tank when they continue to happen anyway, despite our efforts. ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is another ally. Yes, sometimes it is. But sometimes the steps taken to prevent something of low likelihood from happening are far more burdensome and restrictive in the long term than the ‘something’ we are seeking to prevent.
None of these sayings is absolutely and invariably true in all circumstances. Nevertheless, they can be used in the name of protecting me from any number of nebulous threats. They can be used to sell me all kinds of unwanted goods and services.
The other side of ‘being careful’ is the delusional belief we maintain that we can make the world safe. No matter how much care we take, accidents will continue to happen; unexpected calamities will still strike. From this point of view we can never be careful enough, that’s true. We can never be so careful that we will exclude the possibility of anything bad and unforeseen from occurring. Someone will always be able to appeal to the fear that resides in that crack between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’.
I refuse to live in the sphere of fear within which insurance companies, governments and other agencies seek to envelope me. I will take some care. I will take sensible and necessary precautions (as determined by me). I will, for instance, continue to look both ways when I cross the road, and make every effort to avoid putting bleach in my tea rather than milk. I will, however, be very careful not to be too careful.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
It never ceases to amaze me how self-deluded Australian society can be. This is a society in which racism, sexism and homophobia is rampant; but which vehemently denies that this is the case. We like to pretend to ourselves that we are a modern, liberal, morally advanced society. We are not. And this leads to some very peculiar contradictions.
Take this one example. This year, the fifteenth Brisbane Queer Film Festival is being held. For that we will no doubt pat ourselves on the back. See how wonderfully open-minded and forward thinking we are?
Then this happens. One of the billboards to advertise the festival carried this image:
Brisbane Lifestyle Committee (whatever the hell that is) Chair, Krista Adams, said that the Brisbane Council requested a stop on this billboard. ‘We are mindful of the community’s views and believe that one of the three posters may be seen by many as too confronting,’ she said (Courier Mail online, Feb 21, 2014 12.03 pm). One person commented on my Facebook page that she didn’t think it was appropriate for children to see it. Incidentally, she wasn’t Australian.
Would anyone think this was too explicit or too confronting if it were an image of a man and woman? Of course not! So what is the difference? The difference is that many Australians remain uncomfortable with demonstrations of affection between men (at least). We are far from accepting this, except in carefully controlled and delimited arenas, such as gay parades and gay film festivals. As a nation we are supposed to be seriously considering the introduction of same sex marriage. How can we do that when two men kissing is considered confronting? When, for some reason (what reason, one wonders) it is considered inappropriate for children to witness outward manifestations of affection between men?
Drop the pretense, Australia. As a society we are nowhere near as open and liberal as we like to believe.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
I’m afraid I can’t hold back this political rant any longer. Readers from overseas may not get much out of it. Although perhaps you are having a similar experience in your own country? I have a feeling Canadians might be going through something similar at the moment. If you believe you have an arrogant, heartless, retrograde government that would like nothing more than to bring back the good ole fifties, read on.
I can’t remember when Australia ever had such an arrogant, supercilious, self-righteous bunch of people in charge of the country. Paul Keating (former prime minister) was an arrogant bugger, but at least he was funny and intelligent with it. Peter Costello (former treasurer) was high up there in the arrogance stakes. Fortunately he never made it to PM. But in this government! What a team! Just look at them! Scott Morrison (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Julie Bishop (Minister for Foreign Affairs), Christopher Pyne (Minister for Education), Greg Hunt (Minister for the Environment), George Brandis (Attorney General)… Are there more you would like to add? Can we do no better than this?
Interestingly, compared to this sorry collection, Tony Abbott (Prime Minister) and Joe Hockey (Treasurer) seem almost human and almost reasonable. Perhaps that is Abbott’s strategy. Having these clowns in his cabinet makes him look almost good. But then, he did appoint them (or so he would have us believe). I do wonder how much in control of these people he actually is. Nevertheless, they make our climate-change denying, homophobic, misogynistic Prime Minister appear almost competent in comparison. And Joe seems to ‘mean well’.
Then there is poor Malcolm Turnbull (Minister for Communications) standing more or less on the sidelines, looking slightly bemused by it all. If he had been leader, even I might have been tempted to vote for the Liberal-National Party coalition. And we have Barnaby Joyce (Minister for Agriculture) battling against his own government, for the most part. I may not agree with his political ideology, but at least he seems to want to do something worthwhile—and he also has a sense of humour. And, finally, there is poor Ian MacFarlane (Minister for Industry)… Industry? What industry?
I blame the Labor Party for this. I don’t think many people in this country really wanted to see these people in power. However, the Labor Party pulled off such an astonishing feat of very public self-destruction during its last term in office that people rightly chose not to vote for it. Who to vote for then? Well, perhaps Abbott and his team might not be too bad. They couldn’t be worse, surely? Well, I think now we are beginning to find out.
And now we have the Opposition, sitting there in Parliament, directionless, weak, not knowing which way to turn. Bill Shorten (Opposition Leader) looks clueless and idea-less, with nothing more than a few hackneyed clichés and tired tactics to fall back on.
How did we get here? Well, Kevin?
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Someone says to you, ‘I really, really loved your book.’ Someone else says to you, ‘I liked you book, but…’
Which of these comments is likely to have the most impact on you? Which will you take to bed with you and replay over and over again in your mind?
I will take this one step further. You receive, over several days or even weeks, hundreds of emails praising your book. Then, on the nth day, you receive one email from a reader who didn’t enjoy the book. Which, for you, weighs greatest in your mind, the hundreds of positive emails or the one critical email?
We would all like to say that we can easily brush aside the negative email. It’s just one opinion among many, right? It’s not possible to please everyone. Perhaps I can learn from the person who didn’t like the book. Yet despite this self-talk, I am willing to wager that the single negative email will drag you down much further than the hundreds of positive emails were able to raise you up. I suspect that the world of our emotions is governed by a law of gravity similar to, if not stronger than, the law of gravity that operates in the physical realm. It is against this natural and pervasive downward force that all praise has to operate. It takes work to lift us up; but none to drag us back down again. Carrying this analogy further, it takes constant praise (force) to maintain us at a given height, and without that praise (force) we fall.
I don’t think I am alone in having this experience. I suspect many of us would like to deny that it is true of us. Perhaps after time we can become hardened or immune to the things that impact negatively upon us. I’m not sure I am at that point yet. I envy those who possess seemingly indestructible self-esteem. At the same time, I don’t actually believe in its reality. They are just better actors than I am. Nevertheless, perhaps if I act the role long enough it will eventually become my reality.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Many books that I review end up receiving a star rating in the vicinity of three. These books are not terrible, but they are not particularly remarkable either. It’s not surprising that most books fall into this region of the spectrum. As a reviewer, this leaves me room to move when I am presented with a book that stands out from the crowd. Fight, by Brent Coffey, is one of those. Here is a writer who knows how to set a scene, who knows how to build suspense, who knows how to give out tantalising hints to the reader; and who knows how to surprise the reader.
Fight tells the story of Gabe Adelaide, the adopted son of a Boston Mafia boss; of Bruce Hudson, the District Attorney who tried and failed to prosecute him; of August, the little boy who witnessed his parents’ death, and whom Hudson and his wife want to adopt. Around these characters is woven a fascinating story of intrigue, plots, deceit and misunderstanding. The main characters in this story are complex, many-layered, flawed and utterly believable. As much as this is a mafia-style thriller, it is also an exploration of how life’s events shape character. It is a story of loss and redemption. Within the story the characters carry their burdens, but learn surprising lessons from life. In presenting some (but by no means all) of the minor characters (particularly the ‘bad guys’) Coffey occasional falls back on stereotypes. But this is not at all true of the main characters or many of the other minor characters. They behave and think in ways that are entirely believable.
I had a few quibbles with some of the minor plot points in the story, which were unconvincing. However these were never central to the plot, and could easily have been addressed. For example, it was not believable that the men who were sent at one point to kill Gabe would decide to report to their father, a powerful mafia boss, that they had been successful when they were not. He would (and did) quickly learn the truth. This was not at all important to the plot and I wondered why the author felt it necessary to include it. In a second example, the way one character was dispatched relied upon some questionable chemistry. There were a few other similar issues. I also wondered why the author had chosen the name ‘Adelaide’ for the main mafia family, when they were clearly intended to have Italian roots. This incongruity bothered me a little, and seemed completely unnecessary. The choice of St Knox for the name of the hospital also struck me as odd. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a St Knox. Knox is a name associated with Scottish Calvinism and is unlikely to be used for an ostensibly Catholic hospital. Attention to some of these details would have added at least half a star to my rating.
There were also a few grammatical issues and typographical errors, which seemed to increase in frequency as the story progressed, but which never became a major concern.
For the faint-hearted I should mention that there is some graphic violence and strong language to be found here. None of it, in my opinion, was excessive or gratuitous.
This was a book that I really enjoyed reading. There is plenty of action and suspense for those who like that kind of thing. However, there is also a depth to the story and characterisation, and a quality to the writing, that does not often accompany it.
Monday, February 10, 2014
The concept of tolerance has always bothered me a little. First of all, it sounds a little condescending: I don’t like your behaviour, but I will tolerate it. By saying that we tolerate something we are, at the same time, making it clear that we disapprove of it. The nuances of language aside, there are other issues that we should consider.
First, we need to recognize that ‘tolerance’ is a fairly recent, western, and probably middle class idea. Yet we assume that the concept is a universal value. Or have attempted to elevate it to such a position. It is almost inevitable and certainly understandable that those who adhere to a particular value argue that it is universal. It is all but implied in the concept of ‘value’. Yet historically and culturally there are many belief systems that do not enshrine tolerance as a value, or even consider it desirable. Even if that were not the case, it is certainly possible to conceive of a system of belief in which it were. Let’s consider a hypothetical religious belief system in which a group of people believe themselves to be the recipients of a divine revelation demanding that all people worship the sun. Worship of the sun is the only way to achieve salvation. As long as any one living person does not worship the sun, all souls are in jeopardy. Anyone who does not worship the sun is seen as an enemy of the sun, forfeiting not only their own salvation, but threatening also the salvation of sun-worshippers. Tolerance within such a system of belief is unthinkable. Tolerance, under such a system, would be a sin.
It is a very modern, western, middle class notion that all religions will preach love, peace and tolerance. Many have not. Many do not. This is a corollary of our equally modern, western, middle class notion that ‘all religions are the same’. They are not. They never have been.
Even if we genuinely do believe that tolerance is a universal value, we cannot expect others to automatically share that belief.
The other issue with tolerance is: Tolerance of what? Another way of asking this is: Are there limits to tolerance? Whether we consciously acknowledge this or not, it seems clear that there are behaviours and belief systems that even the most tolerant among us do not feel any obligation to tolerate. I could choose any number of issues here. For example, there may be those who believe that it is required of them by their sun-god to destroy non-believers, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. In this way, they may believe, they obtain special favour in the eyes of their deity. It is no use those outside this belief system arguing that this is contrary to some other aspect of this religious system. That may be true. But those who believe it, nevertheless believe it. Most of us, perhaps, would argue that such behaviour should not be tolerated. Should the belief system that leads to such behaviour be tolerated? That is a more difficult question. There are many, many, many more examples where a belief system results in behaviour and practices that we, in the west, will not (perhaps justifiably) tolerate.
A proposed limitation on the concept of tolerance is the balancing concept of ‘harm’. The argument is that we should tolerate any behaviour that does not bring harm (to others? to oneself?). This sounds alright, as far as it goes, but questions inevitably arise. What constitutes harm? What degree of harm is required before it becomes intolerable? Is all harm harmful in the long term? Spanking may be considered harmful for a child in the short term, at least. But there will be those who would argue that it is only slightly harmful in the short term but enormously beneficial in the long term. Our sun worshippers may believe that women can only be saved by serving as slaves to their husbands. This may be considered harmful to women by outsiders, but to insiders, including the women themselves, this may be regarded as eternally beneficial. It is a slippery slope to argue that the women themselves only believe this because they have been culturally indoctrinated. This may be true; but this argument can be made of any belief. There is something very arrogant about the outsider telling the insider that they don’t really believe something.
The concept of tolerance is not as straightforward as we might at first believe. It most certainly does not stand for ‘anything goes’. Nor does it relieve us of the responsibility of making ethical judgements in each case that confronts us. We may get some of those judgements right; we may get many wrong. Unfortunately, there are no easy short cuts in ethics. The concept of tolerance certainly does not provide one.