Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Recently I reviewed an anthology that included some poetry. A few weeks ago I edited another anthology that also contained poetry. Not only did this raise the issues, for me, of exactly how to go about editing or reviewing poetry; it raised the more fundamental issue of what actually constitutes poetry.
There was a time when poetry was much more formal than it is today. By ‘formal’ I mean quite literally that poetry adhered to certain specific forms, both in terms of rhythm, line structure and line length. I don’t know much about the technical language. Suffice to say that it was complicated, but also precise. There were also various forms to follow governing the rhyming structure of poetry.
Sometime during the twentieth century at the latest, much of this formalism was abandoned. What took its place was a free form kind of poetry. Not simply blank verse (i.e., non-rhyming), but seemingly possessing little or no formal structure. There may be subtle rules and structures to which poetry continues to adhere, but I suspect that most of us are unaware of them.
Today, when many people write poetry, they either follow a simple rhyming form, with lines that (sometimes) scan; or they write in an entirely unstructured way. While the former is clearly ‘poetry’, I generally find it uninspiring. Choosing a word because it rhymes with another has never seemed to me to be a particularly good criterion. It often leads to bad word choice or very questionable rhymes. The rhythm of such lines (if the author has paid attention to rhythm at all) often seems clunky.
On the other hand, I really doubt that some freeform poetry is really poetry at all.
One does not create a poem
Simply by spreading the words
Across several lines
In a manner
Something like this.
Much freeform poetry seems to be little more than prose with arbitrary line breaks.
So what, for me, are the essentials that differentiate poetry from prose? I would suggest three things:
1. Words and phrases need to be used in unusual ways, images that jolt us out of our normal level of awareness.
2. Words need to be placed. By this I mean that there is a reason for ending a line with this specific word rather than another—this may be for rhyming, but also for other purposes. The same is true of the word that starts the line, and, indeed, for the key words within any line.
3. Lines need to possess some kind of rhythm; not necessarily, these days, any of the precise meters used in the past, but some kind of rhythm and flow, nevertheless. At the very least, lines are broken at that particular place for a reason, perhaps to create suspense, or to generate a specific juxtaposition of ideas.
Some of these elements will be borrowed from time to time in the service of prose. Used together, though, they constitute the minimum necessary before I would regard a collection of words and phrases to be a poem. There may be other elements that I have overlooked here.
People may object strongly to any kind of formalism in poetry. In my discussion here I have tried to keep formalism to a minimum. Nevertheless, if I am going to be asked to edit or critique poetry, I need to use some criteria. Now you know what they are.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Every person on the planet speaks differently, even though we each share much in common with others who speak our particular language, share the same dialect and have the same accent. The way a person speaks is an essential part of their character; it is understandable when writing that we want to represent that individuality by reproducing these speech patterns. This, however, is quite a challenge. How do I make a character sound Irish without dropping in a ‘To be sure, to be sure’ now and then; or Scottish without the odd ‘Och ay the noo’?
One of the ways in which it is customary to make a character sound uneducated is to drop letters, usually Hs from the beginnings of words and Gs from the ends. ‘This is ’ow it might sound if I wuz talkin’ like that.’ Notice also the subtle alteration in the spelling of ‘was’. I’m sure most writers have used this technique occasionally. The problem is maintaining it for any length of time. How often do I drop a letter? Do I spell ‘going to’ ‘gonna’ all the time, or just occasionally? I remember reading Wuthering Heights in high school and struggling with the speech patterns of the character Joseph. Here’s just a very brief sample:
‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out! Bud yah’re a nowt, and it’s no use talking—yah’ll niver mend o’yer ill ways, but goa raight to t’ divil, like yer mother afore ye!’
This went on for page after page. Maintaining consistently a character’s accent or dialogue is not only very difficult to do, but also makes the text difficult to read.
Of course, part of the problem is that none of us actually speak like this (‘this’ being the words I just wrote). What I would probably have actually said, if I were speaking, was something more like this: ‘’Fcourse, parta the problem is thut nunavusackchilly speak like this.’ All of us actually speak differently from the way words are neatly and systematically written on the page. And all of us speak with an accent of some kind, although to our own ears it might not seem so. So when I choose to represent the speech of a character in a particular way, all I am really indicating is that the character does not speak like me—which is, of course, the way ‘normal’ people speak.
So how do we indicate that a person speaks with a particular accent? One way is actually to inform the reader. Here is Joseph’s speech again, with some interpolation and translation:
‘I wonder how you can fashion to stand there in idleness and worse, when all of them’s gone out!’ said Joseph, although it took me a while to work out exactly what he said. To my ear it sounded like this: ‘Aw wonder how yah can faishion to stand thear i’ idleness un war, when all on ’ems goan out!’ Slowly I became accustomed to the rhythm of his speech. ‘But you’re a nowt,’ he continued, ‘and it’s no use talking—you’ll never mend all your ill ways, but go right to the Devil, like your mother afore you!’
This maintains the archaic forms of words, but without the odd spelling and contractions. Perhaps if someone is speaking with an Irish accent, instead of spelling the words out phonetically—we don’t, after all do that with our own ‘normal’ speech patterns—we might just mention the sing-song lilt of their speech (or something like that).
If someone is speaking English as their second language, with a foreign accent, it’s probably a good idea to avoid caricatures like this, for an Italian accent, for instance:
Are-a you-a going out-a to dinner tonight-a?
Or like this for a German accent:
Vat do you vant to do tonight?
Perhaps a better way of dealing with this is to drop in the occasional foreign word, or have the speaker hesitate as they struggle to find the correct English word. Perhaps they might misuse a word occasionally—people for whom English is not their first language often do not us the correct preposition, or they misuse the definite and indefinite articles. It is important to try to avoid stereotypes and caricatures, however.
There is no perfect and simple solution to the problem of using accents in dialogue. It is something I have struggled with myself—and continue to struggle with. Once you set yourself on that path, however, you may have placed a millstone around your own neck. You may also make life difficult for your readers—and yes, Ms Brontë, I am thinking of you.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Today I thought I would post a short story; not something I do very often. I would be interested in hearing how you respond to it:
A Train Ride
I stand on the platform. It could be anywhere in the world. A pigeon struts, pigeon-toed, around my legs. I am another pillar, holding up the roof, but subject to sudden, inexplicable movements. The pigeon, too, could be any pigeon anywhere. Words float in the air around me in another tongue—not just anywhere, then. The words refuse to stay out there, in the air, and wriggle their way into my ears, into my mind.
The train—I hear it approaching, see its single eye in the darkened tunnel. I am still fixed in place—that pillar. Here I stay. Here the door will roll to a halt. Here is the button, which I push. Air seems to rush into the train, as people rush out from the other side. There is, in general, a predominance of hissing and swishing.
To the right is the vacant seat, into which I fold myself, folding myself yet more tightly around myself, lest I be touched. Sometimes I read, but today I am bookless, Kindle-less. The floor at my feet becomes a refuge for my gaze. I see, mainly, feet. Knee high boots, worn sneakers. I imagine, if I do not precisely sense, their odour. Other odours there are, however. Damp odours. Garlic, too, I think. I become acutely aware of the air I am breathing. Air that others have breathed before me. How much of her, I wonder, am I breathing in. She sits next to me. Her arm and shoulder brush against mine. I cannot retreat. I don’t look at her except fleetingly, brushing her with the periphery of my vision.
A dreamlike state creeps upon me. The world becomes a little fuzzy, sounds a background buzz. Except that some words in English cut through the fuzz. An Australian accent that has the password into my awareness.
“Yeah. Last time I was home I managed to catch up with…” But the rest is lost as the train pulls up at a stop, doors open, letting in air, letting out smells… and people. Did the Australian accent leave? I am not sure.
Within my fuzz I am surprise at how quickly we arrive at the stop before mine. I move my bag slightly, where it rests on the floor between my legs. It is a ritualistic, preparatory move. Also a claim of ownership, as I grasp one of the straps. Lest my bag escape. The world appears, for a moment, like the kind of place in which bags yearn for freedom and make a break for it at the first opportunity. There is another button to push. So I push it. How would it be, to be a button in this world that no one ever took the time to push?
I stand now as the train approaches my stop, swaying a little unsteadily, grasping the handhold. I notice that the train has already discharged most of its occupants. Others also stand ready to disembark. I move against the tide, to the left, which involves side-stepping, this way and that. I do not like being a rock in the stream that divides the flow. Then the way is clear and I make my way—and it is my way, no one else takes this route. I am convinced that this shaves a few milliseconds off the walk from the train to my office. So I walk through the air that I have parted before, many times, re-enforcing my pheromone trail, staking my claim on this small fragment of the universe.
Somehow, I have made it again.
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Friday, November 15, 2013
Why do most depictions of Jesus look so much like Russell Brand, when they should probably look more like Osama bin Laden?
People will probably say that I have this the wrong way around: that it is Russell Brand who looks like Jesus. It’s true that Russell Brand looks like Jesus as he is often depicted in religious art. In fact, the historical figure probably looked like neither. He almost certainly didn’t have Max von Sydow’s or Jeffrey Hunter’s baby blue eyes.
Unlike some people, I don’t dispute the existence of an historical figure going by the name of Joshua sometime in the first century of this era, living in the region of Palestine and presenting himself as a religious prophet. He clearly had an impact on people. Since then, of course, the western world has set about reconstructing this figure in its own image. Both the man and his teachings. Joshua, or Jesus if you prefer, was a man of middle-eastern origin, beliefs and appearance. This is probably embarrassing and even offensive to some contemporary Christians.
Let’s just admit that Jesus would be much more at home in a market in Gaza than in a Walmart in Los Angeles or a Coles in Cairns.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Recently in Queensland, the state government has passed what it considers to be tough ‘anti-bikie’ laws to crack down on what are perceived as criminal bikie gangs. Apparently these are suddenly such a threat to our society that laws which undermine basic human rights are necessary to ‘protect’ us all. Here we go again. Another bunch of unnecessary and draconian laws to protect us from yet another imagined threat. Let’s not worry about real threats, such as those to the environment. Instead, let’s pass dangerous laws that may be populist in the short term, but probably won’t achieve what they aim to achieve, and open the doors for even further human rights abuses in the future.
Oh, I’m sure all Queenslanders feel so much safer now. I’m sure, like me, you have lain awake in bed at night in terror of these bikie gangs.
Governments love to target an ‘enemy’. No doubt it gives them a sense of power. They can claim to be getting tough: doing ‘something’. It is only too easy to play upon people’s fears. And, let’s face it, people seem to scare easily (except about climate change, apparently). The other easy target for governments (including this state government) is paedophiles. I am one of those bleeding heart liberals who happens to believe that even paedophiles have legal (and human) rights; which, of course, will immediately lead to accusations that I am ‘protecting’ them or am in some way defending their actions. No. I am simply pointing out that paedophiles remain human beings. We do what governments and frightened people always do when we label them ‘monsters’: we try to define them as non-human so that we can treat them in any way we wish. Need I point out that this is a slippery slope?
The crimes allegedly committed by members of bikie gangs are already crimes. They are not worse crimes (or in any way different) because they are committed by people who identify with such an organisation. I felt the same way about anti-terrorist laws. As far as I am aware, it was always illegal to set off a bomb in order to kill or injure people. Special laws and penalties are not required to deal with this. It is now, apparently, illegal for any three or more members of an illegal gang to meet together (for any purpose). Too bad if these people also happen to be friends, cousins or brothers. Three brothers, who happen also to belong to such an organisation, can no longer have Christmas lunch together. I presume it has always been illegal to meet together to conspire to commit a crime. That in itself is already, probably, a slightly silly law. Now, of course, the presumption is that whenever any three or more people who belong to such an organisation meet together it is for the purpose of carrying out or planning a crime.
Let me think. Presumably people who don’t belong to any identifiable criminal organisation have in the past, are at present, and probably will in the future meet together to plan nefarious deeds. After all, apparently 99.4% of all crimes in Queensland are committed by people who do not belong to these identified criminal organisations. Are you in a restaurant right now, reading this on your smart phone? Are their three or more people having a meal together right now in that restaurant? Oh my God, are you having a meal with two or more other people right now? What if they (or you) are planning a crime? Any group of three or more people, anywhere, anytime, might be planning a crime! Oh my God! Government, please step in and protect me! Let’s make it illegal for three or more people to meet together anywhere, anytime. That should make me safe!
This is, of course, ridiculous. Or is it? There are reasons why we protect the right of legal assembly; and reasons why governments past, present and future are suspicious of such rights. All kinds of human rights abuses can be ‘justified’ in the name of protecting us. Governments with too much power—as Queensland’s government does have right now, without an effective opposition and without an upper house of review—seem only too quick to abuse that power.
I would rather be accused of being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’—and even actually be one—than stand by and watch our rights eaten away in the name of ‘sensible’ and ‘appropriate’ measures designed to ‘protect’ us. I suspect we are more often in need of protection from governments than by them.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Sand City Murders is a mystery/crime novel, with a time travel twist. It is narrated in the first person by Patrick Jardel, a reporter with a small town newspaper, the Sand City Chronicle. He becomes involved in the investigation of a series of strange murders in the town. The investigation becomes international when the Dutch detective, Tractus Fynn, is brought into the investigation because of a connection with similar crimes overseas. It soon becomes apparent to Patrick that all—and particularly Fynn—is not what it seems. Fynn slowly reveals himself to have the ability to travel through time and alter past events, and Patrick himself discovers that he is unique (apparently) in being able to recall the previous timelines, although the present is now altered. Along the way it becomes clear that a shadowy figure, whom Fynn calls ‘Mortimer’, may be behind these murders, and that this Mortimer is also a time traveler, and Fynn’s arch-enemy or nemesis.
There is a certain corniness to this plot, which may be intentional, paying homage to detective fiction of the past, but also, perhaps, to more recent television interpretations of these. The figure of Fynn reminded me of the recent interpretation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in the current ITV production, Poirot, as portrayed by David Suchet. Fynn is slightly (and somewhat indeterminately) foreign, somewhat pompous and markedly old-fashioned. He is meant to be Dutch apparently, yet, for some reason, refers to young women as ‘Mademoiselle’, blurring his nationality to some extent.
The plot itself is necessarily complicated and, I might say, almost indeterminate. This is because the present—due to Fynn’s and Mortimer’s messing with the past—is in constant flux. Who has been murdered, who works where and does what—these things can change within a few pages. This means that minor characters in the story are difficult to pin down: today, they are not who they were yesterday. The major characters, though, are reasonably firm, Patrick, Fynn and the main local detective on the scene, Durbin. Patrick’s growing confusion and the gradual disintegration of his concept of reality and his trust in the world around him are well portrayed. This also provides for some nice moments of humour. I was a little less sure about Fynn. In particular, his foreignness seems to come and go somewhat. Mortimer (when his identity is finally revealed) turns out to be something of a comic book character: rather stereotypically evil. The motivation for his personal vendetta against Fynn remains unclear to me.
In any story involving time travel, there are always going to be problems with the plot. Explaining the ‘rules’—why this happens, why this doesn’t, how this or that is accomplished—will always leave plenty of scope for criticism. For the purpose of such a story I am generally happy to ‘suspend my disbelief’ in these cases. The author here makes a valiant effort at making it all plausible—and, of course, fails miserably in the attempt. That’s okay. What bothered me slightly more was that he spent too much time trying to explain the rules to the reader, via conversations between Patrick and Fynn. There were too many such conversations, none of which really served to clarify the matter or further the plot. I was also puzzled by the introduction of another element into Patrick’s character, namely, his apparent total ignorance regarding modern icons such as Superman, Popeye and the Flintstones. We are informed that Patrick possesses no television, but this is not enough to account for such ignorance. These little hints were intriguing and amusing, and I eagerly awaited the explanation for this, or the revelation of their significance for the plot. Neither eventuated. Or perhaps I missed something here.
It is clear that the author intends this to be the first in a series of novels, with Tractus Fynn as the main protagonist, and Patrick as his narrator/sidekick (à la ‘Watson’). I would be a little concerned that the motif—crime occurring; Fynn flashing back to past to undo crime (thus changing the present); Mortimer flashing back to do it all again—could become tedious very quickly. Subsequent volumes could end up being nothing more than minor variations on the theme. I await the sequels with interest.
I might just mention that there were a number of technical issues with the book. Particularly early on, the author seemed to have lost control of the tense in which he was writing. Happily, this settled down after a while. There were also a large number of typographical and grammatical errors, which I stopped counting after a while. Some of these errors really jarred: ‘once and a while’ instead of ‘once in a while’; ‘gossip-and-chief’ rather than ‘gossip-in-chief’; similarly ‘editor-and-chief’ rather than ‘editor-in-chief’. The author repeatedly wrote ‘in the knick of time’ rather than ‘in the nick of time’. This was unintentionally amusing. The author also frequently wrote ‘maybe’ instead of ‘may be’. I would encourage the author to work hard to avoid so many issues in subsequent volumes.
All in all, this in an enjoyable and entertaining book. The overriding concept is interesting and provides scope for some interesting stories. There is also the possibility that this will quickly lose its novelty value. To this volume I give four stars.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart. – Mark Twain
For the record, I do not subscribe to that school of writing, inspired by contemporary journalism, that insists on everything being pared down to the bare minimum. I enjoy a well-used, well-placed adjective or adverb. I like to wax lyrical on occasion. As with everything in the art of writing, however, the secret is in choosing the time and place. Very often, less will be more.
Many writers (myself very much included) simply use too many words. Consider the following passage from a one-time NYT best seller:
Somehow, Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct now overruling his sedatives. As he clambered awkwardly out of bed, a searing hot pain tore into his right forearm. For an instant, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him, but when he looked down, he realized his IV had snapped off in his arm. The plastic catheter poked out of a jagged hole in his forearm, and warm blood was already flowing backward out of the tube.
Opinion will vary about this, but let’s see if I can eliminate a few unnecessary words here:
Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct overruling his sedatives. As he clambered out of bed, a searing pain tore into his forearm. Briefly, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him; then he realized his IV had snapped off. The catheter poked from a jagged hole in his forearm, warm blood flowing from the tube.
Eighty-two words have become sixty-one words. In this short passage I achieved a 25% reduction in word count without, I would suggest, any loss of information or impact. I might even argue that the impact is greater in the second version. If only this practice had been applied to the entire book!
As an editor, I will always strive to make the writing tighter and more concise, without any loss of essential information, and without affecting the impact of the writing. We tend to use auxiliary words when they are not really necessary. Why write, for example, ‘he began to stand up’, when all we really mean is ‘he stood’? By all means use ‘he began...’ if the action is interrupted, and this is important to the story. So: ‘He began to stand, but a firm hand kept him in place.’ Even here ‘up’ is redundant. Avoid phrases such as: ‘he tried to go as far as he could.’ Presumably he actually went as far as he could: the trying is redundant. Unless you have a specific reason for using the imperfect tense, use the perfect tense: ‘He watched television’ rather than ‘He was watching television’. Is it really necessary to write: ‘He opened the box and a smile rapidly grew across his face’, when ‘He opened the box and smiled’ will do the job? Yes, sometimes you will want to wax lyrical; but choose the moment carefully. Don’t squander this creativity on less important passages.
Having written for scientific journals, in which every unnecessary punctuation mark is ruthlessly excised, I have become very efficient at trimming the fat. Even so, it often takes others to point out the fat I have overlooked in my own work. Sometimes ‘the fat’ may be a precious aspect of our creativity; most often it isn’t.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go through this blog and trim it of its unnecessary fat of which, no doubt, there is an abundance.