Saturday, April 19, 2014

What to do next...

At the end of the novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey (as also in the movie), we are left with an image of the Starchild, the super-evolved new form of Dave Bowman, astronaut, hovering above the earth and wondering what to do next. That, to me, has long symbolised the challenge, not just of being a super-evolved human, but of being an ordinary, everyday human. What do I do next?

Traditional religion has often posed the question: Why am I here? Personally, I don’t believe that I have been brought into this world for some kind of secret (or obvious) purpose. Human beings came into existence through an entirely natural and wonderful process of evolution. Evolution has no plan. It doesn’t think ahead. Natural selection responds to existing conditions, and sometimes it leads to useless dead ends. So I am not here for a purpose, as a result of some divine or natural plan. Nevertheless I am here; and the question that always faces me is: What do I do next?

I wouldn’t claim that we are the only creatures on this planet, let alone in the wide universe, who face this question. Nevertheless, we do seem to depend less on instinct and more on conscious decision-making than most other animals. Almost certainly we are driven by instinct more often than we care to admit. But much of what I do has to be decided. It doesn’t really matter whether other creatures also face this dilemma. It doesn’t even matter whether you do. I know that I do.

When we are younger, particularly in our teenage years, we battle for our freedom. We don’t like being told what to do by those in authority. We rebel! And spend the rest of our lives looking for someone or something that will tell us what to do next. Whether they are political leaders, great philosophers, religious leaders, or pop stars, we look for someone to lift from us this terrible burden of decision-making. No wonder neither religion nor totalitarianism ever quite go away. We want what we so detested in our parents: someone to tell us what to do next.

It can be tiring, this decision-making, this unending process of self-motivation. One of the characters in the novel I am currently working on has these thoughts:

He wanted to be a bee or an ant, or some other creature that was simply what it was, and didn’t have to decide what to be, or feel guilty about what it was or wasn’t. He doubted that an ant or a bee experienced guilt.

No doubt someone will want to argue that it’s possible that ants and bees feel guilt. Fine. Let them. All I know is that decision-making inevitably involves guilt. When faced with a choice, it is always possible that I will make the wrong choice. And, of course, in the real world there is never a simple ‘right or wrong’ choice. Every choice I make will have good and bad consequences, to a lesser or greater degree. There’s always room to feel guilty about the bad ones.

So, every day—every moment—I feel like that Starchild, looking at the world around me and wondering what I will do next. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad, by any means. It’s also wildly exhilarating! Possibility is both frightening and exciting, like the best rides in a theme park. With all the burdens that come with this freedom to do, I would never again swap it for the security of the State or the comfort of Religion.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Review: The Radovaks' War, by Robert Wickson

This is quite an ambitious undertaking, tracking a Polish family, the Radovaks, and their connections through the six years of the Second World War, across Europe and North Africa. Although the story follows all members of the family from time to time, it focuses most closely on the two sons, Stefan and Igor and, to a lesser extent, their father, Max.

The point of view (POV) adopted in this novel is crucial to how well it works or doesn’t work. When the focus is on Igor and Stefan, the POV tends to be third person and intimate. This is also sometimes true from time to time of other characters, but it is Igor and Stefan whom we come to know most intimately. We are made privy to their emotions and thoughts; we are taken into situations of suspense, jeopardy and intimacy with them. These are the parts of the novel that work best. Having said that, sometimes, even during these more intimate moments, the POV might shift momentarily to another (sometimes quite minor) character. This was not always successful. As far as other members of the family are concerned—particularly the mother, Anna, and Igor’s wife, Trishka—even when the narrative concerns them, the POV tends to be more remote and external, and events are often related quickly and sketchily. Sometimes they are not seen for many chapters, and even when they are finally seen again, the reader never comes to know them very well. As a result, the reader does not become very heavily invested in their fate.

There are large gaps even in the stories of Igor and Stefan. Sometimes they disappear for several chapters, and many months might pass. Although the external events of their stories are quite different, I never really acquired a sense of these men as distinct personalities. They remain, rather generically, young men involved in dangerous circumstances. These circumstances and the men’s activities dominate over personalities. Nevertheless, some of these individual episodes are very well told. Max, although given less airtime, seems to have a more distinctive personality, perhaps because he is an older man. Among the women, Anna the wife and Trishka the daughter-in-law scarcely come to life. It is actually Marie, the love interest of Stefan, who acquires the most substance among the women, probably because there is at least one chapter in which her POV is adopted and becomes very intimate. Minor characters come and go throughout the story, some given—briefly—more prominence than others, only to disappear off stage, never to be seen again; or to have their fate reported briefly later. One character is introduced only very briefly and his death scene is reported. We are then informed that over several months Igor had become close friends with him. This has important implications for the final chapters of the novel. Yet this friendship is only very briefly reported, and his death leaves the reader unmoved because the reader has no relationship with this character. This is an example of the inconsistency in the treatment of minor characters which is sometimes problematic.

I would rather the author had made a firmer decision to follow closely the trajectory of the two sons (and, to a lesser extent, the father) through the war, rather than popping back occasionally to relate what had been happening with the women for the past few months. In the end, these brief episodes were a distraction from the central narrative. The alternative would have been to give a much closer and more intimate account of the women too, which would, of course, have made this a much larger novel, perhaps of Gone With the Wind or War and Peace proportions.

All in all, I felt that the author the captured period quite well. As to the historical accuracy of the events reported I am not entirely sure; but I did notice one historical discrepancy: although referred to several times here in 1945, the KGB was not formed until 1954. This did make me wonder about the historical accuracy of other parts of the story.

As seems to happen so often in many (particularly self-published) novels, there appeared to be an increasing number of typographical errors as the novel progressed, as though whoever undertook the editing and proofreading became tired and lost focus along the way. I was particularly irritated by the persistent use, during one section of the novel, of mien for the German mein. This inevitably stood out in the italicised font.

I did, in the end, enjoy this novel, although the way the author sometimes skipped lightly over important events, or made large jumps in time, irritated me. Overall, I felt the novel could have used a firm editor’s hand. I give it three stars.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Commas Put Editor in Coma

Commas Put Editor in Coma

This might be the headline one day, as I tackle an editing task. They look so sweet and innocent, don’t they? Look at him back there, dangling prettily behind that ‘t’. But they invade my dreams at night, those tiny, tailed dots. Beware the comma apocalypse!

Is it just me, or do they drive you crazy too? Where to put the little buggers? When I edit my own writing they pop in and out all the time. I figure it must be something to do with what I have eaten on the day that determines whether I put a comma there or there. Now there are some rules (and guidelines) of course. We all know the famous ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ vs ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ example. There are many other situations in which the presence or absence of a comma changes the meaning. Nevertheless, there remains that grey area. ‘There are a number of situations where their use becomes a matter of judgment and personal preference’, observes the Australian style manual. Damn! Where’s a good rule when you need one?

The use of commas is as much about rhythm as it is about grammar and meaning. This is tricky for someone with little or no sense of rhythm. Or, perhaps, with a fluctuating sense of rhythm. Do I use more commas on days when I have eaten salsa?

Consider one of my earlier sentences: ‘Is it just me, or do they drive you crazy too?’ My natural inclination is to place a comma there, because I ‘hear’ it. But it’s not long before I begin to second guess myself. ‘Is it just me or do they drive you crazy too?’ Now I can hear it without the comma. Does it matter? Probably not.

My inclination when editing someone else’s work is only to modify the use of commas when it actually affects the meaning, or when one of the actual rules for using commas clearly applies.

Even so, you can bet that during each pass that I make through your manuscript commas will pop in and out of existence like some kind of weird sub-atomic particle.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Being Wrong

4 x 4 + 4 x 4 +4 – 4 x 4 = ?

The above arithmetic sentence has been floating around Facebook recently. Can you work out the answer? Apparently (we are told) 73% of people get it wrong. To work it out you have to know a rule: in calculations like this, multiplication and division take precedence over addition and subtraction. That means, simply put, that you carry out any multiplications or divisions before you carry out the additions and subtractions. So it works like this:

4 x 4 + 4 x 4 +4 – 4 x 4 = 16 +16 + 4 -16 = 20.

Most people (73%), though, don’t seem to know this rule. They simply carry out the calculations from left to right:

4 x 4 + 4 x 4 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 16 + 4 x 4 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 20 x 4 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 80 + 4 – 4 x 4
= 84 – 4 x 4
= 80 x 4
= 320

That’s okay. It’s an easy mistake to make, if you have forgotten the rule or never learned it. The interesting part of this is the reaction of many of those who get it wrong. Some insist that theirs is the correct way to do it. Okay, fair enough. They’re wrong, but at least I can understand their position. Other arguments are more bizarre. ‘Different people do things different ways. You can do it any way you want to.’ ‘So someone made a silly rule! So what, I’ll do it however I want to!’ Rather than simply admit that they were wrong, or that they did not know the rule, they adopt a defensive posture. ‘I didn’t know that rule, so it can’t be important anyway.’ ‘No one’s going to tell me how to do it. It’s a free country, I’ll do it my way.’

Arithmetical or mathematical anarchy is not an option, but there is a deeper point here. It demonstrates how difficult it is for people to admit that they are wrong, once they have committed themselves to a position, even on such an apparently trivial—it’s not actually trivial, although many might think so—issue such as this. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. I see it now,’ people would rather defend the incorrect answer or adopt the attitude that ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’. If this is possible on an issue that people will have forgotten tomorrow, imagine how difficult it is for people to admit they have been mistaken on what appears to be a more important issue: religious beliefs, political opinions, scientific theories.

Our politicians demonstrate this kind of attitude every day. They obstinately cling to an outmoded policy or point of view today for no better reason than that they held it yesterday. To admit that they might actually have been mistaken…? It can’t be done. And were they to do it—in fairness to them—the media and the public would bay for blood. People cling to religious or superstitious beliefs long after they are even remotely defensible. Pride—and a lack of anything to replace the old view—prevents people from changing their minds. Or admitting that they may have been mistaken after all.

As a society we should applaud scientists, politicians, religious and other leaders—anyone who has the courage to stand up and admit: ‘Yes, I was wrong. I see it now.’

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part Three

The Writer as Interior Director

I have talked about the writer as architect and the writer as builder. As architect we plan and design our story; as builder we put together the words, sentences and paragraphs that give our ideas form.

Hemingway argued that writing was not interior decoration, and that the Baroque was over. Many writers, once the building has been constructed, would consider their job done. However, I believe there is one more step that can turn competent and even good writing into excellent writing. It is what transforms writing as craft into writing as art. This does not necessarily involve the elaborate constructs of the Baroque; but it does require attention to detail. It is about word choice, sentence structure, and the careful construction of paragraphs. It is beyond good grammar, and often even breaks those rules. This I call ‘interior decoration’. It is writing to create a mood, to generate an effect, and to vary pace. As with all art, this will often come down to a matter of taste.

Consider the following passage:

She came in the Towers’ front entrance and walked up the stairs, passing her neighbors on the way. She walked down the hall of the fifth-floor to room 5C, dug in her purse, unlocked the door and let herself in. She was shocked to find blood splattered on her living room walls, her flat screen television smashed on the floor below its wall mount, her plants uprooted and dumped out of their containers.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this. It’s not badly written. The grammar is fine. It’s clear and concise. Now consider this:

Coming in the Towers’ front entrance and walking up the stairs had been a familiar experience. Passing her neighbors on the stairs had been a familiar experience. Walking down the hall of the fifth-floor to room 5C had been a familiar experience. Digging in her purse for her keys, unlocking the door, and letting herself in… all familiar as well. Finding the blood splattered on her living room walls, her flat screen television smashed on the floor below its wall mount, her plants uprooted and dumped out of their containers, well, all of that was very unfamiliar.

What the writer has done in that second version is to first of all create a rhythm, using repetition and well measured phrases. They have avoided overusing that repetition by varying it on the fourth pass: ‘all familiar as well’. Then comes the reveal, with the antithesis: ‘all that was very unfamiliar’. The writer has used this measured rhythm to build suspense and create a mood. The reader knows something is coming, and is led skillfully towards it. That is interior decoration, and it turns good writing into something much more powerful and evocative.

This is not something that should be done all the time. To do so would be to stumble back into the Baroque, or even the glitzy pretention of the Rococo. The book would become far too long-winded and annoying. This, I think, is what Hemingway is warning against. But it should be done at key moments, and to a lesser extent along the way.

Interior decoration is not always about adding words. Minimalism is also an interior decoration choice. Less is sometimes more effective than more. A simple word or phrase can be just the right touch. Listen to this from The Dubliners, by James Joyce. ‘Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.’ So few words to say so much. There is an entire personality—a philosophy even—in that sentence. ‘All this happened, more or less’, is the opening line of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse Five. It forewarns you about what you are about to read. How much more? How much less? This is a true story but, well, maybe not so true, too. This is sort of what happened, and sort of not.

When it comes to interior decorating, words are used—even fewer words—to do far more than just tell a story, or convey information. They are used to create an effect. They are used to evoke. Poets do not have a monopoly on this. And creative writing is not journalism. Any number of combinations of words can convey the information. When we choose this word rather than that one… When we decide that this sentence sounds better before that one… We are already doing the interior decoration. It is a fine line we tread and it will come down to taste in the end. Did Joyce go too far when he wrote that ‘Love loves to love love’? Or when he described ‘The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea’?

This is not something that an editor can necessarily help you with very much. I might say to you: bring this passage more to life. I might say: tone that down a little. I may suggest a better word here and there. I may suggest that a particular metaphor does not work well. But this, more than anywhere else, is where a writer’s individual style comes in.

It is also where the rules are broken. It is where sentence fragments are used, where words are used with unusual meanings. The rules are broken intentionally to create a particular effect. And this is where a copy editor must tread carefully. Often it is obvious when a writer is simply making a mistake; but sometimes there is the suspicion that an ‘error’ is intentional. Here, as copy editor, I will just raise the question. Did you intend to do this? And I might also suggest that, in my opinion, it does or doesn’t work. But this is a judgement call, not an appeal to the rules.

The best writing, then, demands that the writer be architect, builder and interior decorator. There need to be good ideas, an interesting plot and strong characterisation. The right building blocks and materials need to be used. But this empty building also demands decoration. This will give it interest and even beauty. This will generate the surprise and delight when we turn the corner. It is this which helps to transform writing from a craft into an art.

If writing as art is frowned upon today, regarded as something pretentious, we are the poorer for it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Review: Baggy Pants and Bootees, by Marilyn Chapman

The first thing I want to say about this book is that I wanted to read through to the end. That’s already a sign that a book is worth at least three stars. I was particularly interested to learn the fate of the characters from that part of the story set during the Second World War.

The story takes place during two time periods, related side by side. In the late 1960s we meet Sophie, an ambitious, capable young woman trying to make her place in the very masculine world of journalism. She works for a small town newspaper with links to national newspapers. As a young teenager, her alcoholic mother threw her out of the house and she was forced to make it on her own. It is when the mother she has not seen for years makes contact with her that the story begins in earnest. When her mother has an accident and loses touch with reality, Sophie begins a quest to find out the truth about her own origins. Was her father really a US Army officer, or was this a story concocted by her mother to cover a darker secret?

This introduces us to the other time period, during the war years. We meet Sophie’s mother, Frances, at the time when her family is killed during an air raid, and follow her story up to and beyond the birth of Sophie.  For me, it is this second story that has the greatest depth of characterisation and in which there is real drama to be found. For me, Frances’ story is at the heart of the novel.

In her quest to find the truth, Sophie is aided by two men. The first is Steve, a photographer at the newspaper who has a reputation as a ladies’ man, and who begins a pursuit of Sophie. She resists, and in this storyline there are some rather conventional themes. The other man is David, who is the son of the woman in whose house Frances lived as a boarder, and in which Sophie suspects she was born. From the beginning she feels a strong connection with David, for reasons that she cannot understand. In this part of the story, there are fallings in and out, misunderstandings and jealousies, which I largely found myself impatient to get through until we were returned to Frances’ story.

Frances, for me, is clearly the best delineated and most interesting character. Sophie is not a caricature, nor is she exactly two-dimensional. At times, though, I did find her annoying. David and Steve are both given some complexity, but still seemed rather half-heartedly drawn. During the 1960s episodes, the author largely adopts the point of view (POV) of Sophie, although occasionally she does adopt the POV of these men. I never felt that I quite came in touch with any of these characters inner lives, the way I did with that of Frances.

During Frances’ era, the minor characters have some life and colour. During Sophie’s era, the minor characters—mostly her co-workers—are little more than names on the page. Occasionally one will surface briefly and do or say something, but this never constitutes anything of real significance for the story. Usually I had no idea who these people were if they were eventually mentioned a second time.

As with the characters and story, so with the setting and ethos. I felt that the author did a much better job of making me present during the war era than during the sixties. The mood and feeling of the former period was reproduced much more effectively than that of the latter. Apart from the mention of Woodstock, there was little here that felt like the sixties. The attitudes expressed by the characters, including Sophie, smacked more of the fifties than the sixties. In 1969, would people really react with such shock to the thought of a man and woman spending the night together? Would Sophie really refer to an unmarried woman in her thirties as a ‘spinster’? There was so much going on in the world at that time—the moon landing, Vietnam, drugs, the hippy movement, the music, other social movements. This strand of the story would have benefited greatly by drawing on some of these elements.

The central plot—I refer here to the mystery that gradually emerges as Frances’ story is told—is clever and plausible. The revealing of it is also well told. The writing at times is very good—again mainly in the telling of the earlier story. This is a good illustration of the interaction between plot, characterisation and writing style: it all just works so much better when Frances’ story is being told. Perhaps, like me, this is where the author’s heart really was.

I had a few minor quibbles here and there with some details of the plot. There were also a few typographical errors that might be corrected. What defines this novel for me, though, is the contrast between the two time periods. Frances’ story would easily get four, if not four and a half, stars from me. Sophie’s story, though, would get three stars. I will therefore compromise and give this three and a half stars (rounded up to four where necessary). 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part Two

The Writer as Builder

In this three part series I am considering the words of Ernest Hemingway: ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration and the Baroque is over.’ I am not so much taking issue with this sentiment, as giving it a slight twist and introducing some nuance.

In the first part of this series I talked about the writer as architect. Every writer needs some kind of plan to work from, even if at the beginning it is little more than an idea. By the end, there is a beautiful, stable, coherent structure in place. Right?

It is when we actually begin to build this structure that words appear on the page. Words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters—these are the bricks and mortar of the writer as builder. This is where we draw upon our skills as an artisan. The writer as builder is the writer as craftsperson. Every craft has its technical skills, and those of writing involve the correct use of words, sentences and so on.

For many reasons people struggle with the rules of grammar these days. Perhaps they have never been taught them at school. Perhaps these rules seem petty and unimportant. The rules, if rules they are, seem fluid and unstable, particularly in this world of tweet-speak.

In fact, these are not so much rules as descriptions of accepted usage. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive, although they can certainly have the appearance of the latter. They are a gathering together of the ways in which we actually use the language. These ways change over time, and the rules can often lag behind. Sometimes battles are fought to retain a usage which seems to be facing extinction. Sometimes these battles are worth fighting; sometimes they are not. Nevertheless, these rules exist in order to facilitate communication, to ensure that we understand each other. Private languages are of little use.

The more subtle rules of grammar enable the writer to introduce nuance into his or her work. The basic rules of grammar make that work comprehensible. Using the right words with the correct spelling, structuring sentences and paragraphs correctly—this is nothing more than the process of ensuring that the bricks of the building are laid evenly and without gaps, that the window frames are square, that doors open and close. When someone looks at a building, they will often comment on the fine finish, the attention to detail—or lack thereof. Poor grammar and bad spelling are the equivalent of poor workmanship. In a beautifully designed, expensively furnished building, who wants to see shoddy tiling in the bathroom?

But the writing process is about more than just getting everything technically correct. It is also about expressing the writer’s intent as clearly and concisely as possible. The need for conciseness is not the same as the quest minimalism. It is not about eliminating adjectives and adverbs. These are often necessary and enhance the writing. But it is about avoiding redundancy, eliminating repetitious words and phrases, and using simpler constructs where possible.

Proofreading and copy editing are the ways in which an editor assists the writer in this part of the writing process. Copy editing is about more than just good grammar. It is about structuring sentences so that they express as clearly and concisely as possible the intent of the writer.

Consider these examples.

1.      ‘Do these guys think that they can get away with leaning on my friend’s son and get away with it?’

There is nothing wrong grammatically with this sentence. All the words are spelt and used correctly. Yet it clearly needs work: ‘Do these guys think they can get away with leaning on my friend’s son?’ Not only is the second ‘get away with’ redundant, but ‘that’ is also redundant.

2.      As a fellow artist, he could sense better than anyone else what his desires were.

There is nothing technically wrong with this sentence. But it is unnecessarily wordy and convoluted. This is better: ‘As a fellow artist, he could sense his desires better than anyone.’  

3.      Unlike Sarah or Geoffrey, she wasn’t as powerful as they were, or even as powerful as Michael was.’

This is better: ‘She wasn’t as powerful as Sarah or Geoffrey, or even Michael.’ After copy editing, manuscripts are invariably shorter.

The proofreader will correct obvious errors, but will not restructure sentences or paragraphs. The copy editor will. These are all parts of the building process, of the craft of writing. Already this goes beyond mere technical correctness. The line between craft and art is forever fluid.

The writer as interior decorator takes this a step further.