Anyone can write but editing must be learned. P.G. Wodehouse was a relentless editor, polishing his manuscripts to perfection – Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt) described Wodehouse’s unique system:
‘When he was writing a book he used to pin pages in undulating waves around the wall. Pages he thought were working well would be pinned high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall.’
The aim was to get the whole story up to the ceiling level. Here are 3 books that have helped me learn to edit:
The Art of Writing by John Gardner is a more stringent book which talks about maintaining the ‘dream’ of the story – when the writing draws attention to itself (in a bad way) then the dream is broken for the reader.
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner
On Becoming a Writerby Dorothea Brande (1934) explores the idea that a writer is both artist and self-critic – a writer begins with the unconscious mind ‘bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’; but then the conscious mind ‘must control, combine and discriminate’ (that’s editing in a nutshell).
The writer must be as God in his universe — present everywhere and visible nowhere. -Flaubert
There is great exuberance in the Moomins, and a delightful battyness. – Jeanette Winterson
The Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson (originally from the 1950s) are reprinted in five magnificent hardback volumes. The comics are a lovely balance of humour and optimistism. The free-spirited Moomins live in the moment and these comics are still relevant, commenting on consumerism, the environment and work. For example, in The Conscientious Moomins, an officer of the League of Duty admonishes Moominpappa for being a drop-out; but when Moominpappa joins the establishment, all the pleasure goes out of his life, and he returns to his old philosophy of
Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. – Flannery O’Connor
The best short story I’ve ever read is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find – it certainly has the most powerful ending. Her stories can be dark, her characters grotesque, but there’s always a redemptive thread and a tough spirituality that’s never preachy. O’Connor honed her writing to near perfection despite the pain of lupus which killed her at the age of 39. Here are some of her incisive thoughts about the writing process from her collection of essays and lectures, Mystery and Manners:
If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money.
When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’
Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.
There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the fiction writer can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting to the point at once.
As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.
The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity.
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers – they said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years, was re-worked and finally published to some critical reviews, writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? It’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book, and very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Strawberry Snatcher has trod.
For a flower to make fruit and seeds, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do 80% of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally vital so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water and spray-free gardens.
Scenes from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling movie, Wings Of Life:
This is Wanda G’ag (it rhymes with blog) one of the finest children’s book illustrators. Her masterpiece is Millions of Cats (1928) the story of a lonely old couple who attract ‘millions and billions and trillions of cats‘. The pictures roll like waves across the pages; clouds, trees, hills and cats all swept along in the flow of the story. The black and white gives it that slightly unsettling folktale vibe. As a child I loved the army of cats drinking a pond in seconds, and the final catastrophic catscrap. Try to find her bizarre Nothing At All too, about an invisible dog.
I’m writing a sci-fi novel and falling into two traps: Infodump and Unobtainium.
Infodump is a when a character gives a mini lecture — telling instead of showing — such as in reply to “Tell me, Professor, how does your invention work?” Infodump can be reduced by editing out any techno-babble, and by using characters to give brief explanations only when plot demands it to move forward.
Unobtainium is a plot device such as an alien substance or a future technology. Most sci-fi has these but too often they’re used by writers to remove a plot hole; as in ‘Lucky I brought my sonic screwdriver to do this impossible task.’ (A version of: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’– Arthur C Clarke). Possible solutions are to make your ‘Unobtainium’ central to the plot (eg. give it a snappy back-story), or reduce it to a playful bit of science.
It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school (primary!). I sat on the hard grey mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg to the class. I became so engrossed I didn’t even notice my mother slip out. That loyal elephant helped me get through that watershed day without too many waterworks. My other favourite Seuss characters were the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz. Seuss pushed the English language to the limit. Ever wonder why Green Eggs and Ham is so repetitive? Seuss only had a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, but he created a classic. By the way writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.
When I first started beekeeping, older beekeepers often said their bees recognised them – now we have proof it’s true. Honey bees’ brains are the size of a sesame seed with only a million neurons (we have 100 billion), but bees can learn patterns, navigate, communicate, count, tell time, measure, and memorize. Research now shows they can also recognise human faces. Bees were trained (with a sugar water reward) to identify a human face, front and side view – and after training they could instantly identify the same face rotated 30˚. Honey bees do not have distinctive facial markings, so why have they evolved this ability? It’s due to their pattern-recognition skills but I wonder if it also evolved as bees formed a close relationship with humans over the last 20,000 years. Here’s how I might look to a bee with it’s many-faceted compound eyes:
The life of the bee is like a magic well: the more we draw from it, the more there is to draw.’ — Karl von Frisch
All royalties from my ebook, Honey Bees, are donated to Oxfam, funding projects such as ‘Plan Bee’ which teaches beekeeping to women in Ethiopia. The Plan Bee project enables an extra 4,400 women beekeepers to increase production by using modern beekeeping methods and equipment, and so earn a living for their families. Read more about Plan Bee.
New genetic research suggests honey bees originated in Asia not Africa as previously thought. Bees have been around for a while: the oldest known bee is a 100 million year old bee suspended in a piece of amber (a tree resin), found in Myanmar (Burma). Ancient bees lived in trees or on cliffs – honey bees derived from cavity-nesting bees that spread out from Asia about 300,000 years ago. People discovered honey about 20,000 years ago; it must’ve seemed like a magical food in their diet of wild animals and plants. Early honey hunting was a dangerous job because bees lived in tall trees or on cliff faces. Cave paintings show hunters climbing cliffs to raid nests – imagine dangling from a vine, 150 metres up a cliff, while being stung by bees! People still do this kind of honey hunting today in India, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Image: Rock painting of a honey hunter in Valencia, Spain (6000 to 8000BC)
I wouldn’t have said off-hand that I had a subconscious mind, but I suppose I must without knowing it, and no doubt it was there, sweating away diligently at the old stand, all the while the corporeal Wooster was getting his eight hours.
Everything in the tales appears to happen by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated. – A. S. Byatt
One of the appeals of the 200 year old tales of the Brothers’ Grimm is how random events seem connected; as A. S. Byatt says in her excellent essay (online here). They are stories of generic princesses, simpletons, brothers and sisters who meet with good or bad ‘luck’ on their quest, yet are bound by the rules of the fairy tale world – a kind of guided randomness, but usually with a happy ending. Perhaps this is the way children see the world: capricious, a little scary, but ultimately, a hopeful place.
When I was a child I loved how the Grimm’s characters met the forces of their fickle, often gruesome, world with kindness and cunning. I’d lay in bed and listen to Danny Kaye’s brilliant reading of Clever Gretel on Sunday morning radio. The illustration above is by the great Arthur Rackham (more Grimm illustrations here).
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.– G.K. Chesterton
The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:
The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.
Does the universe have a purpose or is it an accident? Scientists have divergent views on the significance of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is the iconoclast, Richard Dawkins, who sees an indifferent universe which has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose.” At the other end is biologist Jane Goodall who believes the universe is both purposeful and meaningful. In between there are theories ranging from a ‘conscious universe’ to a ‘self-creating universe’. Whatever their beliefs, at least there’s usually a shared sense of wonder among scientists…
The threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.– BBC News
A new study on ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides says that they are a key factor in the decline of bees. The study combined 800 research papers from 20 years and concluded these nicotine-based nerve poisons are also damaging the wider environment. The pesticides are systemic – the whole plant remains toxic right through to flowering – so bees (and other critters) are poisoned by pollen, nectar, and drinking water. These pesticides are widely used in NZ and even sold in garden centres. The government has not yet responded to the new study, so meanwhile, avoid these products: Confidor, Advantage, Merit and Admire (what shameless names). And remember that there are ways to deal with pests without harming bees, including organic gardening and IPM:
It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson
I loved science fiction when I was a young teen – especially short stories about time travel, which usually had surprise endings. In Arthur C Clarke’s All the Time in the World, a man freezes time a second before a nuclear blast; in A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, the death of an insect changes the course of history. I still have my old copy of Bradbury’s Golden Apples of the Sun; the Corgi paperback cost me 65 cents new in 1970 (about the hourly rate for raspberry picking in my summer holidays). A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a novel ahead of its time in 1960 (it was rejected 26 times by publishers). Its plot combines wormholes and angels and has a classic ending: a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. L’Engle liked to tackle grand themes, as she said:
You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.
Honey bees and flowers have an electric relationship. A bee in flight becomes positively charged through friction with airborne particles. Fortuitously, flowers have a negative electric charge – and naturally, positive and negative attract each other. The bee (+) detects the tug of the flower charge (-) and lands on it. Immediately two things happen. Firstly, charged pollen leaps onto the bee’s body, a bit like your hair will leap onto a rubbed balloon. Secondly, the flower loses its negative charge – this tells nearby bees that this flower has just been visited. The flower has time to ‘recharge’ itself and refill its nectary. It’s a sweet friendship: bees get food (pollen, nectar) and flowers get pollinated.
Hergé was a master of evoking atmosphere. Think of the house of Professor Tarragon in The Seven Crystal Balls: the building of the storm, the heat leading to the burst tyre, the gust of wind as depicted by a slender tree against a slate grey sky, the sinister mummy in his cabinet, the ball lightning, Tintin’s nightmare (image below) – such a feeling of supernatural dread evoked by a confluence of natural events.
Despite the cinematic quality of Hergé’s stories, Tintin’s true home is in the comic book medium. He occupies a space at a perfect level of abstraction, real enough to evoke our world, pared back enough to activate the imagination. – Hugh Todd
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig was banned in 1969 in many states because it depicted police as pigs (even though they were kind pigs). The brilliantly absurd plot has Sylvester the young donkey trapped inside a boulder while his parents search frantically for him. It’s about a child’s fear of separation – Steig’s version of his favourite book, Pinocchio, about a boy trapped in a piece of wood. The ending is typical Steig: the child reunited with loved ones in with hugs and tears. When he was 15 years old, young William ran away to sea after an argument with his father:
When I finally got home, my mom and dad hugged and kissed me and we all cried. We were a very emotional family.
Books are sensory objects – they have a pleasing look, a comforting smell, a grainy feeling, a reassuring weight. The best-loved ones are battered, dog-eared, coffee-stained, inscribed. You can lend a book, read it everywhere, stow it anywhere, hide treasures in it. A book carries memories with it, locked into untold brain networks by all the experiences you had when reading it:
And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it.― Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
A book works at my speed, comfortable and slow, faster when I want it to be, then slow again. Many of my books are old friends.– Jack Lasenby (interview here).
When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.– Julian Barnes
Jane Goodall’s memoir, Reason For Hope, is certainly that – her life is inspiring. It covers her childhood in wartime England; her revolutionary studies of Tanzania’s chimpanzees; and latest development work via her Goodall Institute. The most moving chapters relate the death of her husband and how she found spiritual support back in the jungle. The writing is honest, sometimes poetic, and the science is simply conveyed. I like the way she integrates science with her beliefs (which embrace several traditions). Here’s a link to a fine interview with Jane Goodall; and a few quotes from her book:
Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference.
We either agree with Macbeth that life is nothing more than a ‘tale told by an idiot’, a purposeless emergence of life-forms…or we believe that, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, ‘There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.’
Yes, my child, go out into the world; walk slow
And silent, comprehending all, and by and by
Your soul, the Universe, will know
Itself: the Eternal I.
We fill our lives with honey and wax.. giving humans the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift, 1773
Honey bees provide us with many fascinating products apart from honey: wax, propolis, and pollen. Beeswax (made in the bees’ bodies) has oodles of uses, including in polish, cosmetics, jelly beans, artists’ media, dental floss and even for cleaning up oil spills. It’s a favourite for candles because beeswax gives off a sweet scent and a lustrous, smokefree light.
Propolis is the bee’s cleaning product – a sticky, germ-killing gum which they collect from plants. It’s used to plug cracks and keep the hive walls clean. Propolis fights infection in humans, especially in the mouth. Pollen is rich in protein and vitamins for the bees; but humans eat it too. The boxer, Muhammad Ali, ate pollen, which may explain his famous saying, ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of sermons, Strength To Love, was written during the Civil Rights struggle (several written in prison). King’s poetic style was aimed at a live church audience – you can almost hear the “Amens” after each sentence. But his words remain relevant 50 years on as he encourages people to be forgiving, non-violent, and non-conformists; and to confront militarism and inequality:
Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together…
Expenditures for defence have risen to mountainous proportions. The nations have believed that greater armaments will cast out fear, but they have produced greater fear.
Through non-violent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Capitalism must undergo continual change if our great national wealth is to be more equitably distributed.
All life is interrelated. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.
Here’s King’s anti-war speech, made shortly before he was shot. (This recording later got a Grammy for Best Spoken Word):
Old Tibet was once the essence of the mystical in Western eyes: with tales of mysterious Shangri-La and the yeti; the remote Himalayas; the serenity of Buddhism and its Dalai Lama. This essence has influenced many comic stories, such as wartime hero, Green Lama (1945), who got his strength by reciting a peaceful Buddhist mantra. Tintin (1958) experienced the power of Tibet when led by a vision to find a lost friend – even the Dalai Lama praised Tintin in Tibet.
Old Tibet was no paradise but, sadly, the culture is fading fast. China invaded in 1950 and destroyed 6,000 Buddhist monasteries; and in 1959 the Tibetans rose up and thousands died. There’s since been a long struggle against the occupation – some Tibetans want independence, others (like the Dalai Lama) would settle for religious freedom and some autonomy.
The second most complex language on the planet. – Professor James Gould
We communicate with the alphabet; honey bees are the only other creatures we know of that use symbols. Their dance moves describe where to find flowers. When a bee finds a patch of flowers she goes home and dances in the hive for her sister bees. The dance shows the other bees both the direction and the distance to the flowers. The direction is told by the angle of the dance: for example, if the bee dances straight up the honeycomb it means ‘fly straight towards the sun’.
The distance to the flowers is told by waggling. Each waggle of the abdomen means a set distance: eg. one waggle might mean 50 metres, so 10 waggles = 500 metres to fly. A faster waggle dance means the flowers have plenty of nectar.
Bees dance in the dark – the audience receives instructions through touch, sound, smell, and taste (nectar).
Iona and Peter Opie were the Brothers’ Grimm of the 1900s. Their great contribution to English cultural history was the fabulous book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; an epic collection of children’s rhymes, riddles, superstitions, jeers, tricks and customs, garnered from interviews with thousands of children in the 1950s. Today’s children are perhaps not the ‘savage tribe’ they were then but many of these rhymes persist in the playground today. Here are some subversive gems from the Opie’s collection.
Pinch-me, Punch-me, and Steponmytoes,
Went down to the river to swim,
Two of the three were drowned,
Who do you think was saved?
Old Mr Kelly,
Had a pimple on his belly;
His wife cut it off,
It tasted like jelly.
When the war is over Hitler will be dead,
He hopes to go to heaven with a crown upon his head.
But the Lord said, No! You’ll have to go below,
There’s only room for Churchill, so cheery, cheery oh.
Same to you with knobs on,
Cabbages with clogs on…
God made the bees
The bees make the honey;
We do the work,
The teacher gets the money.
Scab and matter custard,
Green snot pies,
Dead dog’s giblets
Dead cat’s eyes.
Hard boiled snails, Spread it thick
Wash it down with a cup of cold sick.