Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The Strawberry Snatcher book

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

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.

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Writing Sci-Fi: Infodump & Unobtainium

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

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.

 

The Forces of Writing

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Writing requires four fundamental steps:

Imagine: ‘Open your mind’ (P.D. James)

Write: ‘Put one word after another’ (Neil Gaiman)

Edit: ‘Omit needless words’ (William Strunk)

Hope: ‘Outrun the self-doubt’ (Stephen King)

The steps of writing harmonise nicely with the four forces of physics:

Electromagnetism holds our atoms and molecules together, and like imagination, it has infinite range.

The Weak Force is confined to the centre of atoms, as a writer must be confined with a story until it’s drafted.

The Strong Force holds atomic nuclei together, as editing gives the story strength.

Gravity is like hope, in that it keeps us anchored and has infinite range.

Read my essay, The Science of Writing.

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Wodehouse – a world where things come right

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

‘There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”’

‘The mood will pass, sir.’

P.G. Wodehouse (WOOD-house) created a world without earthquakes, wars or dictators (except Roderick Spode whose ‘eye that could open an oyster at sixty paces’); where nothing mattered, except tidy trousers, and nothing broke, except engagements. He was a brilliant writer who cooked up similes like a master chef:

His legs wobbled like asparagus stalks.

She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.

Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver’s trousers.

Wodehouse published 90 books, writing until his death at 93 years. When asked about his technique he said ‘I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit’. All his books make me happy, but my favourite is Right Ho, Jeeves, about Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, who is ‘so dashed competent in every respect’. The chapter where  Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at a private school is a great example of slow-building comedy.

The sheer joy of stories which offer a world where things come right.– Sophie Ratcliffe (Wodehouse, Letters)

Read Stephen Fry’s tribute to P.G. Wodehouse.

 

How to Write like E. B. White

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

E.B. White wrote only three children’s books and two are America’s top books (Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). What was his secret? Imagination and style, yes, but he also took his time and revised a lot. (Impatience has been my biggest weakness as a writer). Charlotte is short but it took two years to write the first draft, then another year to rewrite it. It has the best opening line of any children’s book  – “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”; and perhaps the finest ending (certainly the most heart-rending). And love those rustic Garth Williams illustrations.

The ending is as beautiful, bold and full of integrity as Charlotte herself.– Guardian

In a Paris Review interview, White puts a witty spin on the need to wait a little:

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.

Opening Sentence Quiz

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Never open a book with weather.– Elmore Leonard

…such as the famous, “It was a dark and stormy night” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The best opening sentences in children’s novels take the reader captive immediately. They introduce character, setting and problem; they fire the imagination; and are clear about what is happening:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on … that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.– Kurt Vonnegut

(Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions begins, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”)

My favourite children’s opening is from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, deftly introducing the 3Ps (person, place and problem) all in a single sentence:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Test Yourself

Match these classic openings from children’s novels to the titles below.

1. All children, except one, grow up.

2. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

3.The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.

4. Here I am, Ralph William Mountfield, banished to my bedroom on Christmas Day.

5. Keith the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered Room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.

6. My father is put in the stocks again! Oh! the injustice of it!

7. When Old Tip lost his bark, Uncle Trev had to teach his horse to bark and chase the cows up to the shed for milking.

8. It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

9. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Titles: The Iron Man, I Capture The Castle, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Devil-in-the-Fog, Matilda, The More the Merrier, Uncle Trev, Peter Pan

Jacob Appel gives some more in-depth advice for crafting an effective opening.

 charlotte's web

Outside Over There

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

That touch of reality in a child’s life is a child’s comfort. The child gets the sense that this person who wrote this book knows about me and knows the world can be a troubling, incomprehensible place. Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There is my favourite Maurice Sendak picture book (and his) – haunting, comforting, uncompromising –  nobody else combined the real and the unreal so brilliantly. In his last interview, Maurice Sendak talked about how his stories reflected his childhood (but what a curmudgeon he’d become).  Outside Over There is a  tale of separation and siblings that features a creepy ice baby (pictured).

Sendak’s books can also be exuberant (In the Night Kitchen), spiritual (Dear Mili), and funny (Pierre, a cautionary tale). I like his vision of atoms dancing to form molecules from the first book he illustrated (when 19 years old), Atomics for the Millions:

sendak-atoms

The Importance Of Living

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Thoughts from a remarkable book written in 1938: The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and inventor.

On writers:

Every word has a life and a personality. A writer always has an instinctive interest in words.

Writing is but the expression of one’s own nature or character… style is not a method, a system or even a decoration; it is but the total impression that the reader gets of the quality of the writer’s mind.

A writer in the ‘familiar’ style speaks in an unbuttoned mood. He completely exposes his weaknesses, and is therefore disarming.

A literary masterpiece is like a stretch of nature itself, well-formed in its formlessness…

On readers:

The ancient peoples called books ‘limp volumes’ and ‘soft volumes’; therefore the best style of reading a book is the leisurely style. In this mood, one develops patience for everything.

I regard the discovery of one’s favourite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right…

A good reader turns an author inside out, like a beggar turning his coat inside out in search of fleas… an itch is a great thing.

linyutang

Animal Imagination

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

In the 1960s, Jane Goodall was criticised for saying chimpanzees have emotions. Today the evidence suggests she’s right although scientists remain wary of anthropomorphism – associating human traits with animals – often with good reason (eg. the gross inaccuracy of The Bee Movie in which boy bees did the work). Of course animals don’t see the world exactly we do, but we shouldn’t ignore what we have in common with them:

Anthropo-denial: A blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves. – F. de Waal

The weight of scientific evidence is that animal have thoughts, feelings and intelligence – animals are not mere ‘survival machines’. It’s now accepted that humans and animals share many traits (Marc Bekoff  (The Emotional Lives of Animals); this fits nicely with evolution which teaches us animals are our relatives and all life is connected. Forgetting  this relationship has led to the honey bee crisis, for example, as people have treated bees as tools rather than partners in pollination.

Acknowledged as individuals, those sparrows, salamanders and squirrels are not interchangeable parts of a species machine. They are beings with their own inner lives and experiences. – Brandon Keim (Animal Consciousness)

Using language that reflects our ‘common ground’ can help give children empathy with the natural world. When writing Flight of the Honey Bee I wanted accurate science yet also a sense of a bee’s experience. Should I use human concepts such as ‘know’, ‘remember’, captivate’, and ‘story’? Should I even call the bees ‘sisters’? The answer was yes. Honey bees have language, intelligence, and memory (and maybe something like emotions); and they’re more genetically sisters than humans.

droneeyes

They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference.- Caitrin Nicol (Do Elephants Have Souls?)

Science Metaphors

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Tell all the truth but tell it slant – Emily Dickinson

Science can be difficult to describe: the maths, the weird words, and then there’s quantum physics. That’s why analogies and metaphors are so useful in science writing. And comforting for the mind:

We find it easier to reason by comparing unfamiliar with familiar, falling back on experience, looking for links between things, and seeking out pattern and meaning.  – Joel Levy, A Bee in a Cathedral

Science abounds in comparisons: a greenhouse to explain global warming; a cat to illustrate a sub-atomic paradox; Kepler’s clockwork solar system. One of my favourites compares quantum physics to jumpy jazz and general relativety to a smooth waltz:

General relativity is like Strauss — deep, dignified and graceful. Quantum theory, like jazz, is disconnected, syncopated, and dazzlingly modern. – Margaret Wertheim, Physics’s Pangolin

And I love Dance for Two by Alan Lightman, a book of elegant science essays that has some cool metaphors: ballet dancer physics, a city of scientists and a world made of iron.

Photo: Shrödinger’s Cat in a super position

shrodingerscat

Tapping The Unconscious

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

There is just one contribution which every  one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.

Dorothea Brande (in the classic, Becoming a Writer) suggests our unconscious is a good source of original stories — but it’s a reluctant creature, resisting the discipline that writing requires. She describes several exercises designed to harness the unconscious:

  • Writing immediately after you wake up before any associations invade the mind (or caffeine invades the body).
  • Writing at a prearranged time every day.
  • Meditation also improves clarity of thought.

Photo: morning, Lake Alexandrina.

Imagination

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

A book needs us desperately. We have to pull it off the shelf. We have to open it up. We have to turn the pages, one by one. We even have to use our imagination to make it work. So, suddenly, that book is not just a book; it’s our book. Mo Willems (Why Books? essay)

The pictures are not very defined because one wants to be able to have the imagination playing over them. Quentin Blake (video)

Because they have so little, children must rely on imagination rather than experience. Eleanor Roosevelt

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…”—Shakespeare

Photo: magnolia dragon

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Miss Clavel’s Writing Advice

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Miss Clavel turned on the light and said, “Something is not right!” – Madeleine

miss clavel You’ve written a wonderful story and identified a publisher. The next step is the most important: wait! Don’t send it off; instead, hide your story for weeks or even months. When you pick it up again it will be like turning on the light –you’ll see with fresh eyes all the lame bits glaring at you. Not waiting has been my biggest mistake as a writer – I always find things I should’ve fixed. When re-reading I often get a Miss Clavel feeling that something is not right; a scene doesn’t fit; the dream is broken and I’m jerked out of the story. A ruthless edit is needed. Illustration from the timeless Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans.

 Nothing must be out of place. The reader must keep turning pages with no interruptions in the flow. – Darcy Pattison

Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner

The Phantom Tollbooth – Words of Wisdom

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

More than any other book I read as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster  gave me a love of words– it puns them, pushes them, and explodes their meaning. It’s overflowing with inventiveness: the man who is short, tall, thin and fat, at the same time; the orchestra that plays colours; the city that disappears because nobody cares. And I love the illustrations by Jules Feiffer, especially this faceless timewaster (pictured), The Trivium, who has a message for all writers:

What could be more important than doing unimportant things? … There’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.

The Phantom Tollbooth is about a child’s quest to overcome boredom. It’s told with imagination, wit and wisdom — what more could you want in a children’s book?

 I had been an odd child: quiet, introverted and moody. Little was expected from me. Everyone left me alone to wander around inside my own head. When I grew up I still felt like that puzzled kid — my thoughts focused on him, and I began writing about his childhood.

Children are still the same as they’ve always been. They still get bored and confused, and still struggle to figure out the important questions of life. – Norton Juster

Basic Writing Mistake

Monday, April 8th, 2013

The only thing to withhold is what happens next.– Orson Scott Card

I made a basic mistake in the draft of my latest junior novel. I tried to create mystery and suspense by withholding information from the reader. Result: boredom, confusion and a plot that has no early grip. The Hitchcock Principle is that you create suspense by showing the audience as much as you can, as clearly as you can. He gives a movie example of two characters talking at a table for 15 rather dull minutes then a bomb blows them up – the scene provides a mere 15 seconds of surprise. But if we see the bomb under their table from the very start of the scene – it provides 15 minutes of suspense. I’ve now edited my opening chapters, clearly introducing the characters, setting and central problem in the first pages, and even promoting a ‘surprise’ (from late in the book) up to Chapter 1.

As soon as the character engages with the problem, narrative tension starts.  This tension is the dynamic of the story; it’s the energy that pushes the story on its journey. – Norman Bilborough

The worse drafts hide information, wrongly believing that just giving a hint here or there is the best strategy. Instead, the reader becomes confused and closes the book…– Darcy Pattison

5 Perfect Endings

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

A great final sentence can offer hope,  provoke a smile or a chill, be wise or witty. At its best, it encapsulates the whole work. Where are these brilliant last lines from?

“Hey, Boo.”  (novel)

“Nobody’s perfect!” (movie)

“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” (short story)

“There is a crack in everything, it’s where the light gets in.” (song)

“All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.” (poem)

 

Picture: Tenniel’s borogroves (Victorian Web).

Best Titles For Children

Monday, March 4th, 2013

The-Stupids-Die

Choosing a title is the fun stage of writing a book. The hard work over, I spend hours happily test-driving pithy, bizarre or lyrical titles. The great children’s titles describe some aspect of the book (plot, setting, character, etc) in utterly striking language. My favourites titles are: A Swiftly Tilting Planet; The Stupid’s Die; and of my own, a book of cautionary rhymes titled, Global Norman. Here are some classic titles of children’s literature:

* Character: Oliver Twist, Shrek, The Halfmen of O, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Flat Stanley

* Plot: Millions of Cats,  Journey To The Centre of the Earth, The Shrinking of Treehorn

*SettingOutside Over There, The Horror of Hickory Bay, The Black Island

*Theme: To Kill A Mockingbird, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry

* Joke: War and Peas, Squids Will Be Squids, Green Eggs and Ham

a swiftly tilting planet cover

Writing is will and imagination

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

The first step towards being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.– Dorothea Brande

The 1934 classic Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, is a practical book which is remarkably in tune with current brain science. Brande believes the writer’s unconscious mind should ‘flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’, while the conscious mind does the hard word work to  ‘control, combine and discriminate’.

Photo: Moria cave, Karamea

Writing is will and imagination; it depends both on unbidden impulses and on careful, considered dedication to the tools of language. Malcolm Bradbury

But the unconscious can be a reluctant creature, resisting the discipline that writing requires. Brande has some intriguing exercises to achieve the interaction between will and imagination. Here are three exercises designed to ‘tap’ the unconscious:

  • Writing immediately after you wake up  before any associations invade the mind (I feel the resistance already).
  • Writing at a prearranged time every day.
  • Meditation to improve clarity (this fits with current neuroscience ideas).

Brande  also suggests our unconscious is the source of our most original stories, and most importantly, that every writer has something unique to offer:

There is just one contribution which every  one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.

Photo: morning, Lake Alexandrina.

 

Tolkien Biography

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialisation was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden. – Humphrey Carpenter

My holiday reading is Humphrey Carpenter’s wonderful book, J.R.R. Tolkien – A Biography.  The account of his early life is quite moving, and the evolution of his stories is fascinating (as Tolkien said, “Stories tend to get out of hand”). Some quirky influences on his writing include:

  • The attack on the toddler Tolkien by a terrifying tarantula in South Africa (1895),
  • Tolkien’s language teacher who trained his dog (to lick its lips) with a Gothic command, “smakka bagms”,
  • His ‘fellowship’ of young writers at college which is broken by the Great War.
  • The vital inspiration of the Kalevala, (Land of Heroes), the mythology of Finland.
  • A trip to a ‘nasty little suburban resort’ where he wrote a poem about a slimy cave creature named ‘Glip’ (1922).
  • His friendship with C.S.Lewis, on whom he based Treebeard’s ‘hrooming’ voice.

The Hobbits are just rustic English people. – Tolkien

lotr

Link to all the Lord of the Rings covers.

5 Inspiring Websites

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

1. Common Dreams: news articles on social, economic, rights issues (mostly US).

2. Utne Reader: best of the alternative press on environment, culture, community.

3. Brain Pickings: nicely curated blog on creativity and culture.

4. Letters of Note: fascinating personal letters from famous people.

5. Templeton: Big Questions Essay Series on science, morality, religion, economics.

 

Best of Flannery O’Connor

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Fiction should be both canny and uncanny.

The best short story I’ve ever read is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, the opening story of an impressive collection. Her stories are dark, sometimes violent, her characters grotesque, but there’s always a thin redemptive thread. Brad Gooch’s detailed biography, Flannery, reveals how O’Connor honed her stories to near perfection despite the pain of a disease (lupus) which killed her at the age of only 39. Her writing is infused with a tough spirituality but she never sacrifices the story for a message. The book Mystery and Manners is a wonderful collection of her essays and lectures – some favourite quotes:

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.

 

 

Self Editing – 3 Essential Books

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Anyone can write but editing must be learned. One of the masters of the finely wrought story was P.G. Wodehouse; a relentless editor, he polished his manuscripts to comic perfection. Douglas Adams (in 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. What ever your system, a little ‘ruthless efficiency’ is required. Here are 3 books that have helped me:

Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King: Teaches the mechanics of style: dialogue, point of view, ‘show not tell’, character, beats etc. Best of all it gives examples, checklists and a self-test at the end of each topic.

The writer must be as God in his universe — present everywhere and visible nowhere. -Flaubert

The Art of Writing by John Gardner: A more stringent book but motivating. Gardner talks about maintaining the ‘dream’ of the story – but 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 Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934) is based on the idea that that the writer is both artist and self-critic. Brande believes we should begin with the unconscious mind ‘bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’, while the conscious mind ‘must control, combine and discriminate’.

But in the end don’t be too hard on yourself. The writer Jacob Needleman thanked his editor for going his book ‘with a flaming sword in one hand and a sweet-sounding bell in the other.’

The Remarkable Gimmal

Monday, October 1st, 2012

I was introduced to the wonderful Gimmal by the poet, Zireaux. He invented this Thurberesque term to describe a rhyming pair, such as hero and zero. What makes the Gimmal so rare? There are no other English words to rhyme with the pair, and the words are related in meaning.

Like two siblings, or twins who’ve been separated at birth and who, reunited again, cast new light upon the other’s existence. – Zireaux

Here are a few more specimens that Zireaux has netted:

summit – plummet; tortured – orchard;

eager – meager; cupid – stupid

I met the Gimmal by chance, rhyming minister with sinister in a poem. It’s the meaning of Gimmals that’s so intriguing – one word is somehow the subversive opposite of the other. Where do these entwined twins come from? If you find a Gimmal, send it to Zireaux, who will give it a home in the collection (a zickering of Gimmals perhaps?).

But I’m convinced the greatest gimmal match is

the violence that one’s silence hatches.– Zireaux

Tortured Orchard (Pont Aven)

Creativity, Google and Mad Men

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

The imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering. Nietzsche

Imagine, a new book by Jonah Lehrer – author of Proust was a Neuroscientist – is about creativity and the brain. Lehrer believes that creativity is our natural state and, like Neitzsche, he stresses the role of synthesising:

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense… the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.

Perhaps synthesising is another word for the endless mulling, rewriting and editing that writers go through. David Ogilvy was one of the original 1960s ‘ad men’ referenced in TV’s Mad Men. He described the creative process of writing advertising copy as ‘a slow and laborious business’ of redrafting and editing (read his full letter here).

Does the ‘dizzying’ internet make us more creative? In a fascinating essay about the brain and computers, Jim Holt argues that while the internet sharpens many cognitive skills, it may be the enemy of creativity. The problem is that the web can be distracting (rather than reflective) for the brain and it barely engages with deeper levels of thought. Holt calls Google a ‘memory prosthesis’. That might be true but it does make synthesising a blog a lot of fun.

Talent develops in tranquility. Goethe

More: editing; and writing and computers

 

Writing Sci-Fi: Beginnings

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Once you have decided which aspect of your story is care about most then it’s a good idea to signal this from the very beginning. Orson Scott Card suggests beginning with a question for the reader. A question does two things: it creates tension and it creates a desire to know the answer.

The beginning must make the reader ask questions that are answered by the stories ending. – Orson Scott Card

Examples from different aspects of story:

  • Milieu: Begin with the arrival of a stranger who asks “What makes this place tick?”
  • Idea: Begin with a mystery, such as ‘Whodunnit?’ or ‘Why is weird stuff happening?’
  • Character: Begin with a character asking ‘How can I change?’
  • Event:  Begin with a character asking ‘How can I survive this/save the world?’.

Ray Bradbury is good at posing questions in the opening of his short stories. A Sound of Thunder begins with an explorer asking “Does this [time] safari guarantee I come back alive?”. The ending provides a satisying answer– ‘you will come back alive but you’ll wish you hadn’t.’

Writing Sci-Fi: Structure

Friday, February 10th, 2012

In his wonderful book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (p.76), novelist Orson Scott Card says all stories contain 4 basic aspects: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event (MICE!). Here are some sci-fi examples (YA):

  • Milieu: about a world or a society. Eg. Running Out of Time by Margaret Haddix about time travel to a past society.
  • Idea: begins with a mystery to answer. Eg. Protus Rising by Ken Catran, murder mystery in space.
  • Character: about character transformation. Eg.The House of Scorpion by Nancy Farmer about a clone who develops values.
  • Event: when something goes wrong in the world. Eg. Box by Penelope Todd about an epidemic that strikes New Zealand.

Which aspect of the story matters most to you? That is the aspect that will give you the story’s structure. – Orson Scott Card

Mission Impossible

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Every writer I know has trouble writing. – Joseph Heller

Confession: I play 1960s TV themes while I write. Mission Impossible is the best:

A pale car stops alongside a dingy desk. A writer gets out, unlocks the desk and takes out a laptop. His mission, should he decide to accept, is to release a novel from captivity. Should the plot fail, he will disavow any knowledge of the effort and his career will self-destruct in five rejections. The writer opens a file and selects likely characters: a trickster, a tough guy, a feisty female. After a planning session the plot is all action. The set-up is smooth, tension rises, but everything falls apart near the end. A contrived twist saves the novel (endings are difficult).

The dynamic theme to Mission Impossible is by Argentine composer, Lalo Schiffrin. This artful video commercial portrays Schiffrin in the composing process.

Pigling Brains

Monday, July 25th, 2011

‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. Emily Dickinson

There’s talk of compulsory laptops and iPads for primary schools, but evidence suggests that books should be the priority for children. A good novel is more likely to engage the brain than a screen. Reading is a ‘neuronally and intellectually circuitous act’ (Maryanne Wolf) – or to put it another way, a novel encourages the reader’s brain to be active in the construction of the story. Wolf also argues that more indirect the writing the more enriching it is for the brain.

Clive James comments on this (in Cultural Amnesia) in his essay celebrating the eloquence of Beatrix Potter. He recalls how his own children were fascinated by slant and mysterious phrases such as ‘eight conversation peppermints with appropriate moral sentiments’ and ‘Alexander was volatile’ in The Tale of Pigling Bland (one of the great character names). James concludes that

Children like to hear good things said a thousand times.

Book People

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Alone we are one drop, together we are an ocean Ryunosuke Satoro

Honey bees are a super-organism: each one working for the health of the whole. In the same way many people contribute to a book. At the writer’s end: family, friends, writing group, experts, research subjects. At the publishers: editor, proof-reader, designer, publicist, education coordinator, accountant. In the world: distributors, retailers, reviewers, website designer, media, networkers and most importantly, readers. Readers are the book’s power — an unread book will wither like a hive without a queen.

Photo: Swarm by Sarah Anderson

New Bee Book

Friday, July 1st, 2011

My new honey bee novel  for children, Wings, is launched today. It grew from a couple of seeds: the pesticide threat to bees and a fascination with giant hornets (it was almost titled ‘Hornet’). While writing, I learned a lot about character ‘balance’ – they do take on their own life, but you need to nudge them now and them. I had fun with the nasty hornet (Torgo), the loopy acid-bee (Ash), and a puzzle snake (Fang). Hardest part was deciding about the death of a character. I’ve tried to create a gripping tale; and trusting in the power of story (okay, and a good editor) I hope readers will see bees in a new light.

…when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually. Maryanne Wolf