Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A standing-still on the wild side

It was a comment by Marley on my last posting that triggered what follows and so it’s a sort of continuation of it. It also gives me an excuse to use another photo of the village.

It’s so long since I played Cluedo that I don’t remember all the possible weapons. Poison, rope, probably dagger, maybe gun, and definitely the imaginative lead pipe (which might be less detectable if the lead was used as a poison rather than the pipe as a blunt instrument). With respect to the creators of the game, though, they’re all pretty obvious – the sort of thing a murderer would be offered if he went to the local store to get ‘something for the wife’. But, for a crime writer, that store is full of items with even deadlier potential – things such as toothbrushes, vitamins or yoghurt.

To show what I mean, try this. Tomorrow, go through part of the day looking for clues and plots. Set yourself up as a victim. Notice how many ways you could be murdered – not by any grandiose scheming, bombs, terrorist attacks, etc. but by the normal trappings of the way you live. Let’s assume you get up and, to give the day an early freshness, you clean your teeth. Who’s had access to your toothbrush since you last used it? Your partner, obviously, and all the other people living in the house. Oh, and the people you had round for dinner yesterday evening. If somebody put the tiniest drop of that stuff from the castor oil plant – Ricin – on the bristles, it would turn your blood into …

(Commercial break begins:
… well, for a full account of what would happen to you, if you haven’t already done so, read The Darkness.
Commercial break ends.)

Next, you maybe pop a vitamin pill or some medication before or after breakfast. Who knows what they are and what contra-indications there are? Again, your partner is the first suspect but no doubt some friends know about it too. The most blatant use of the information would be to tamper with the pills, introduce something nasty which looked like the capsule in question. More subtle, though, would be to find out what reacts badly with them and somehow serve that up to you. Again, it’s something that could be done by any visitor to the house, including guys who come to service the boiler, read the gas or electric meters, or try to get you to become a Jehova’s Witness. (I like the idea of one well-dressed young man sitting quoting the Bible at you while his companion, who’s asked to use your bathroom, quietly adds a deadly tincture to the open wine bottle in the kitchen.)

Then there’s breakfast itself. Is your routine such that anyone watching you shopping can see that you regularly buy a particular breakfast cereal? If so, you’re making it easy for them to target you with some confidence. And so it goes on through the day. Who knows what foodstuffs you prefer? Or where you shop? Who’s watching your movements in and out of the house? Who has access to your dustbins? And what about all the things in your garden shed that you use without suspecting how they might have been contaminated? Why is there a ladder against your neighbour’s wall? What’s in the box they’ve put out with their garbage? Multiply all these questions by the number of people who have access to the various items and you have a complex set of relationships and too many uncomfortable possibilities.

But, you protest, I’m an ideal husband/wife/partner, a model citizen, a hugely respected and admired pillar of the community. Who on earth would wish me such ill? Why would anyone do such things? Well, your reputation, motives and actions may be impeccable but you’ve no idea how others are interpreting them. Remember Estragon’s observation ‘People are bloody ignorant apes’.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t go round in a perpetual state of fear but it’s true that, since I started writing crime novels and stories, I’m always seeing openings and inventing motives where before there were just innocent Jehova’s Witnesses and boiler maintenance men.

So try it tomorrow. Stop as you’re doing a familiar thing and ask how it could be used against you, then ask who could do it, then why. Always ask why. Every action has (or can have) reasons and consequences. There are stories waiting everywhere.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A walk on the wild side

We’re staying with family in a picturesque English village – thatched roofs, cottages, fields, all the images you’d associate with a typical Miss Marple mystery. In fact, it’s the village in which the UK TV drama The Midsomer Murders is filmed. Christmas is a couple of days away. The kids are excited. The overnight snow is quite thick. After breakfast, all gloved and scarfed, I set out to buy the paper – a walk of maybe a mile there and back. Not many people about. As I walk, various alternative scenarios unfold.

A burly man in a tee shirt comes wading through the snow towards me. He’s obviously crazy. No one can step outside the door in these temperatures without proper insulation. He clearly has no nervous system. I know for a fact that he’s going to produce a club, maybe an axe from the hedge beside him and I’ll become a stain on the snow and a headline in tomorrow’s paper (or, rather, a secondary headline because the burly guy will get the lead). As he passes me, he smiles broadly and says a very cheery ‘Good morning’. I smile back, wish him the same, we cross paths and I wait for the axe in the back of my skull. Nothing.

Further down the hill, a woman with an Irish wolfhound. The dog looks lean, hungry, huge. One wrong move from me and it’ll defend its mistress to the death – mine. We pass, the dog doesn’t even look at me. The woman smiles and I get a second ‘Good morning’. When they’re behind me I wait to hear the command ‘Kill’, the crunch of speeding paws in the snow and the hot canine breath on my neck. Nothing.

Near the paper shop a group of old women (not as old as me but old nonetheless) wait at the bus stop, no doubt on their way to their coven. Three of them stand well back, the other two bar the narrow pavement. These are old women, they’ve earned the right to stand where they like. It’s their pavement. I anticipate having to step into the road to get past them. I’m pretty sure that, as I do so, I’ll be struck a glancing blow from an SUV which will break my hip. In the event, as I reach them, they stand back. No ‘Good morning’ but I’m just grateful to get by without mishap or a malevolent spell.

I get the paper. On the way home, I notice a short, steep driveway leading up to one of the cottages and speculate idly about its owner being an old, bespectacled woman driving a Ford Anglia (Miss Marple sans bike maybe) who, in these snowy conditions, would scream round the corner, put the car into a broadside slide, hit the accelerator at the appropriate spot, crest the drive and execute a handbrake turn to skid to the front door and step calmly out with her shopping bag.

Further on, a man stands filming a young girl with a sledge and a dog. He’s looking through branches at her. As the unwelcome images begin to form, the girl calls ‘Hurry up, Daddy. It’s cold.’

I’m almost home and safe again. Striding down the hill comes a tall man with a brisk, military gait and bearing. He’s swinging a black walking stick. Here I should mention that the paper I bought is The Guardian, probably the only UK newspaper free of the influence of people such as Rupert Murdoch and his ilk and notoriously liberal in its views. I imagine the man seeing it and setting about me with his stick, calling me a communist and hoping I rot in hell with all the other pinko, planet-saving homosexual intellectuals who are undermining the way of life he fought for. As I prepare myself for the assault, his face lights up into a big smile and, again, I’m wished a good morning.

Nothing’s wrong with any of these people. They’re good, friendly citizens. The problem is me. I’m the alien. I’m the one carrying the Satanic menace through this country idyll. I obviously read too much.

Monday, 21 December 2009

March/April 0000

To mark the season, a mini dialogue which seems to be about religion but isn’t. It’s triggered by a sentence in The Bible which always fascinated me. I remember very early on hearing that Joseph and Mary were engaged and that, when she told him about being ‘with child’ he was ‘minded to put her away privily’. Back then, I wasn’t sure what it meant – it sounded as if he locked her up somewhere or maybe did even worse Mafia-type things. When I eventually wrote this sketch, it wasn’t about divinity or Christianity or anything, it was simply me imagining a scene between an engaged couple sharing some … well … surprising news. It could have been touching, angry, jammed with revelations and spirituality, or just dull. So please don’t be offended by it. It’s not about religion, it’s about writing.

The scene is a carpenter’s shop. Joe is sawing a particularly difficult tenon joint. He’s interrupted by the sudden arrival of his fiancée Mary. He stops sawing.

JOSEPH: Hello, love. What’s up?

MARY: Joe … We’re going to have to get married.

JOSEPH: Eh? What for?

MARY: I’m pregnant.

JOSEPH: What? I thought you was a virgin.

MARY: I am. But I’m still pregnant.

JOSEPH: I don’t believe it. How could you do that to me?

MARY: No, Joe. I’m still a virgin. Honest.

JOSEPH: Pull the other one. Go and marry the bloke what did it.

MARY: There wasn’t any bloke.

JOSEPH: Oh, Act of God, I s’pose.

MARY: Sort of . . . Let me explain.

JOSEPH: It’d better be good.

MARY: Well, last night, I was in bed asleep, and suddenly I woke up, and there was this bloke standin by the bed. With big wings stickin out the back. He said … Well, he said he was an angel. Called Gabriel.

JOSEPH: And you fell for it?

MARY: No, honest, Joe. He never touched me. He never even put down his harp. He just said I’d found favour with God, and I was going to have a baby boy.

JOSEPH: Just like that.

MARY: Yeah. He said I was goin to be visited. By the Holy Ghost.

JOSEPH: That was his mate, I suppose.

MARY: No. I’m goin to have a baby boy, and he’s goin to be king and rule over the house of David for ever. And I’m to be blessed among women. Oh, and we’ve got to call the baby Jesus.

JOSEPH: Jesus? Well, you should’ve realised he was havin you on when he said that.


JOSEPH: Well, I mean, if he’d said Kevin or Arthur or somethin, it would’ve made sense. But Jesus? … Christ!

MARY: That’s another thing. He’s goin to be a Christ.

JOSEPH: What’s a Christ?

MARY: I dunno. But he’s goin to be one.

JOSEPH: Alright, look. Suppose I do marry you. Is there anything else I ought to know?

MARY: Yeah, we’ve got to go to Bethlehem to have him.

JOSEPH: Bethlehem? That’s bloody miles! And there’s no obstetrical units there or nothin.

MARY: We’ve got to have him in a stable and lie him in a manger.

JOSEPH: A stable and a manger? They’re not making a very good job of it, are they?

MARY: Well, it’s the first time they’ve done a saviour.

JOSEPH: And when’s all this supposed to be happenin?

MARY: Sometime around Christmas.

JOSEPH: I’m not sure about it. Sounds a bit dodgy to me.

MARY: Oh come one, Joe. It’ll be nice.

JOSEPH: Looks like I haven’t got a lot of choice, doesn’t it?

MARY: Not really, no.

JOSEPH: Alright then. I’ll still marry you. Come on, let’s go to bed.

MARY: Oh no, Joe. I’ve got to be the virgin Mary, remember.

JOSEPH: Eh? How long’s that supposed to last?

MARY: Two thousand years. At least.

Happy Christmas everyone. (Or happy holidays if you prefer.)

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Entertaining interlude

Lazy blogging but worth sharing this video sent by my sister (the one who made the cake). No significance, no message, just someone else who doesn't take life too seriously. I hope you like it.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Words, words, words.

I’ve just done one of the relaxing, pleasurable things connected with writing; I read through and signed a contract. And, since the first draft of the book to which it relates has already been written, it means I can sit back, cash the advance (no, it isn’t enough to get a Ferrari or even solve the debt problem of a small uninhabited island but it’s money), and await further instructions.

As I was reading through it, though, it did occur to me that it had probably taken the lawyers a day or so, three at the most, to draw it up and, on a purely word-count basis, their remuneration would be significantly higher than mine. Fine, they studied for their degrees, worked as juniors (or however the system operates today) and, if anything nasty hits the fan, they’ll have to clean it up, so good luck to them.

It is, though, rather ironic that, whereas we (usually anyway) work to make our meanings clear, their technique is to multiply the ‘howevers’, ‘notwithstandings’, ‘heretofores’ and let clauses be as promiscuous as they like and reproduce themselves inside swelling paragraphs which are desperate for the relief/release of a full stop. Different worlds, different words.

Then, when I went to post the signed contract, I stood in the long Christmas queue at the counter and more words jumped out at me. I’ve tried to avoid saying too much here about writers who fail to distinguish between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ and all the rest of them. I’ve come to accept it in general but writers ought to be more respectful of their medium. I'm not talking about conversational speech but prose which has been submitted to editors, agents, publishers, competitions by someone calling him or herself a writer. It’s fine to break the rules of grammar but only if it’s for a purpose and only if you know them in the first place. (I obviously exempt non-native speakers from this opprobrium because English grammar – and pronunciation for that matter – is notoriously difficult when it’s your second language. And because I’m afraid of Scary. And Anneke.)

But I thought these other two examples were interesting in their different ways. First, a woman with a quite refined English accent (I’m in Scotland, remember) said to the server ‘May I purchase this calendar?’
Now there are all sorts of things that could be said about such a request. The calendar was hanging on a hook, with a very evident price tag on it, so the betting was that, yes, she probably would be allowed to buy it. There was the tiniest stress on the word ‘I’ so did she think it was only for sale to a chosen few customers?
But it was the word ‘purchase’ that struck me. Why not ‘buy’? Does she go home to her husband, partner, elderly aunt, or whoever she shares a house with and say ‘I purchased a calendar today, darling/sweetie/Aunt Murgatroyd/whoever’? If she does, it’s delightful to imagine the ensuing conversation, which would be full of:
‘Was the vendor helpful?’
‘Indeed, most accommodating.’
‘Will you be imbibing any wine this evening?’
‘Copious amounts, but first I must micturate.’
I’m not being nasty or superior, I love it that we have these different registers and that people actually use them, but that word ‘purchase’ seemed so incongruous in a shop full of people stressed out with Christmas shopping and having to wait to buy a couple of stamps. But the woman duly purchased her calendar and went home content.

The other example is again grammar-related but interesting in a different way. A young man with a strong Indian accent was posting bundles of cards to places in the UK, France, Canada and Australia. I’ve had one to one sessions with students brought up in India and they speak a much more correct form of English (if slightly outdated) than the majority of British people. One card in each of the bundles had to be weighed to determine the cost of the postage and, at first, through no fault of his own, the man wasn’t doing it right.

The reason was that the man serving him was an Aberdonian and spoke in the local vernacular. On this occasion it wasn’t that the accent was distorting the actual sounds (although that happens very often) but he was making a familiar ‘mistake’ by saying ‘Put one of that cards on the scale’. We all know that, technically, it should be ‘those cards’ – and that’s what the Indian man had been taught, so the mixture of singular and plural had him baffled momentarily. (Another blatant example is the use of the past tense where it should be the past participle – ‘I’d ran to the bus stop’, ‘He’s gave her a present’, etc.)

But I’m definitely not mocking either man. There are many such grammatical ‘mistakes’ that are accepted currency and some of them are perpetrated by characters in my books. If they didn’t speak that way, they wouldn’t be authentic. The important thing is to be understood. I suppose I only noticed it this time because of my struggle with lawyer-speak and the woman’s use of ‘purchase’.

Language is wonderful.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Readers eh? Can’t live with them, etc., etc.

One of the questions I find difficult to answer is the one about whether we have a reader in mind when we write. I know I go on about the characters being free to do what they like but that’s the way it feels. So, in a way, when I’m recording their activities and dialogue, I’m being the reader (sort of). OK, in the end, it’s the writer-me who’s changing things around, editing sentences and segments to get the rhythms ‘right’, but the characters take precedence over almost everything else.

The reason I bring this up, however, is that in the course of answering an email from Jean it struck me that once you’ve blogged a few times and got a few comments you’re aware of your potential (and actual) readers. Which means that the character you’re watching/creating/recording is you and you can begin to anticipate what sort of responses he/it might provoke in the ‘audience’.

Character-Me (CM): OK, smart-arse, prove it.

Writer- Me (WM): What?

CM: Make me do and say things for Scary, Marley, Michael and the others.

WM: It’s not that blatant. It’s more subtle.

(CM yawns.)

WM: Anyway, if I tried that, I’d be bound to offend someone.

CM: Oh, and we can’t have that, can we? Better to stay all bland and cowardly and non-controversial. You’re pathetic. Real writers upset people all the time.

WM: Well, I can do that in books and stories. No need for it here.

CM: Why not?

WM: Because when you start blogging you make … well, sort of friends.

CM: See? You’re a coward.

WM: Why?

CM: That false hesitation there – the ‘well, sort of’ bit. Why be so … apologetic about it? Why not just say friends? Why not commit? You’re afraid you’ll have to send them Christmas cards, aren’t you?

WM: No, I’m not. It’s … oh, you wouldn’t understand.

CM: Huh, I can read you like a book.

WM: Oh yeah?

CM: Yeah. You laugh like hell when you read Michael’s blogs and you know you can’t make him laugh as much so you chuck in big words now and then and pretend to be clever.

WM: That’s not true.

CM: Yes it is – and now you know he’s impressed by you being dumped by a girl to Tchaikovsky, you’re probably looking up the names of other composers to drop into your postings.

WM: That’s rubbish.

CM: No it’s not. You wouldn’t try that with Gary, would you? Gary knows stuff. Gary’s wise. And it’s not just about ancient Greece, it’s about the Beatles and guitars and lyrics. You’re trying to be as smart as he is.

WM: No I’m not. And anyway, Michael’s wise too.

CM: See, covering your backside all the time. So busy not offending people you’re actually licking their …

WM: No I’m not.

CM: Course you are. Same with Jean. She started you blogging. And she interviews real writers for one of her blogs, so you have to impress her, too.

WM: You know, you’re one of the nastiest characters I’ve written for ages.

CM: (Sardonic grin.) Huh, you just don’t like the truth. You’d like Marley to think you’re the writerly equivalent of that bloke whose abdomen you stole to illustrate that blog earlier.

WM: No I wouldn’t. I’ve told them I’m a granddad.

CM: Yeah, why? For the sympathy vote. You just hope they’ll say ‘Poor old bugger’ and let you get away with stuff.

WM: Anyway, before I let you say anything about Marley, I need to check the score in the latest Saints game.

CM: Coward.

WM: Hey shut up with the coward crap.

CM: Ooooh, touched a nerve, have I?

WM: I don’t think you know what nerves are. You’re just spiteful, one of those guys who need to undermine others because of your own inadequacy.

CM: Hmmm. Interesting. You realise I’m you, don’t you?

WM: Er … well, yes. But …

CM: Better keep quiet about the inadequacies then, eh? Better change the subject. Do one of those wandering off at a tangent things to convince Linda you’ve got a quirky way of thinking.

WM: Linda knows what she’s talking about. She’s another who gets other writers involved, encourages them to reveal their methods.

CM: Pity you don’t have a method. You’re too busy creating ‘the right image’.

WM: Huh, well I cocked it up by letting them see you, didn’t I?

CM: Who knows? You’re the writer. Why’ve you let me go on like this? Why can’t you be like Scary?

WM: What d’you mean?

CM: You’ve read her blog. What you see is what you get. She’s funny and she says exactly what she thinks. God knows why she comes here to read this rambling garbage.

WM: Hey, you know nothing about any of them. For example, did you know that Sheila was a ‘Mongrel Christian’?

CM: Course I did. I read her profile. What beats me is why she reads your unbelieving, absurdist nonsense.

WM: Because Christians forgive maybe. Anyway, in the last blog of hers I read she had the sentence ‘Mum’s here with Christmas in her smile’. I think that’s great.

CM: Look, if you want this to be a real conversation, can you cut out the sycophancy?

WM: Hmmm, thanks. Sycophancy. Michael’ll like that. So will Anneke.

CM: Oh no, I’m not doing your obfuscation for you. Hey, stop it.

WM: What?

CM: Making me say stuff like ‘obfuscation’. Next you’ll have me questioning whether Schoenberg’s atonal music really was degenerate art. Damn. That’s for bloody Michael, isn’t it?

WM: Maybe. Anyway, what I’d really like you to do for me now is an exegetical analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, or perhaps a quick ‘Existentialism for Beginners’.

I’m sorry to have to report that, at that point, Character-Me clapped his hand over his mouth and refused to continue. See? The writer always gets his/her way.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Godot rest ye merry, gentlemen (and ladies)

OK, for the purposes of this aside on the festivities, let’s leave kids out of the equation. Christmas for them is different. Never mind that the Star of Bethlehem doesn’t move nearly as fast as the flashes from their magnums as they play the kindergarten equivalent of Grand Theft Auto – there are sparkly things everywhere, a huge tree is suddenly growing and twinkling inside the house and the fat guy with the red gear is on his way. My cynicism about it all is barely disguised but I genuinely am happy that it makes kids happy.

But this isn’t about the kids’ Christmas (or the Christmas for genuine believers, which, again, I acknowledge is something different and something special). This is about Christmas for heathens such as me and even those heathens who still pay lip-service to the notion that it’s somehow connected with a religious faith.

I used to get angry about the whole thing – all the enforced jollity, the contagion of Santa’s ‘Ho-ho-ho’. I found it sad that people were nice to one another just because it was Christmas and couldn’t see that it would be good to be like that right through the year. Why not be happy, caring and ho-ho-ho-ish because it’s Tuesday or October or late afternoon? I didn’t like the profits made from crap goods that wouldn’t even last until bedtime. I couldn’t see the point of sending a card to someone ‘because they’d sent one to you’. I was the guy wandering amongst all the ever-so-jolly adverts, listening to George Michael, Wizzard and Slade belting out their singalongs in all the shops and muttering ‘Bah humbug’ at every opportunity. I was the pre-ghosts Scrooge minus his miserliness.

Then, lo, it came to pass (several years ago, actually) that the scales fell from my eyes and I realised what I’d known all along – that’s it’s the festival of Godot. Waiting for Godot is about all sorts of things. It’s bleak and yet very funny, it’s simultaneously theatrical and anti-theatrical, and it sums up marvellously how we live our lives. I want everyone who reads this to have a wonderful happy time, so I won’t stress (well, not much, anyway) the essential self-deception of waiting for something which never happens, but that’s what Christmas is. The anticipation begins earlier and earlier each year – and that’s marvellous, because there’s a feeling of direction, purpose, a reason to do particular things. The excitement and magic is a daily experience, through late October, November, December.

The mistake is to assume it’s building up TO something. It’s not. Nothing could match the build-up, so Christmas Day arrives, then goes. And almost at once the newspapers start including supplements about summer holidays. Philip Larkin’s poem Next, Please is a powerful evocation of our Waiting for Godot lives and, although it’s not about Christmas, it encapsulates the season. I’m not going to quote it because its truth (for an unbeliever) may seem uncomfortable (and for a believer, it’s just plain wrong).

And no, I’m not just being a miserable old bugger. I’m having a good time. I like the excitement, the gaudiness, the superficial impression that everything’s OK really. I love the wonder in the faces of the younger kids and the naked, smiling acquisitiveness of the older kids who’ve learned how to work the system. And I actually think it’s a shame that, in the USA, political correctness has emasculated the bluff, complex cheer of ‘Merry Christmas’ and substituted for it the bland ‘Happy Holidays’.

But I really, really do want everyone (of all faiths or none) to have a great time. So Happy Christmas to all.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

I forgot to mention something else. I suspect (and hope) that anyone reading this will be far too young to remember a series of adverts for White Rain. They were based on creating mystery and stimulating curiosity. Following their example, I’ll be mentioning The Sparrow now and again over the next couple of months (or less) (or more) with the sole intention of piquing your curiosity to such an extent that you’ll be sending me barrowloads of pounds and dollars to tell you what it’s all about. For the moment, as I said on my Facebook page, all I’m prepared to reveal is that the Sparrow may be stirring. (I also added a comment about Winston Churchill’s reply to the news that his fly was open but I won’t repeat that here since I’m aware of the gentility of my readers and would hate to sully any sensibilities.)

There are plenty of examples of writers who’ve produced great stuff by imposing restrictions on themselves. Beckett wrote in French to stop himself giving in to his facility with English. The French classical dramatists interpreted the ‘rules’ of Aristotle very tightly and had to write in Alexandrines and stick to the 3 unities. But their constraints were easy to cope with compared with the things the members of a group called Oulipo do. I’d vaguely heard about them before but they were featured in a recent BBC podcast and I was amazed to hear the sort of difficulties they create to make the writing process even trickier.

The name comes from a French expression meaning ‘workshop for potential literature’. (It could only be French, couldn’t it?) The group’s been going for fifty years and you can only join if you’re invited to. If you ask to become a member, that guarantees that you never will. Mind you, when you hear the sort of constraints they impose on themselves, you probably decide a visit to the supermarket or a few hours spent staring at a wall would be a better way to spend your time.

I’d heard of Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which doesn’t have the letter ‘e’ in it. What I didn’t know was that it had been translated into English by Gilbert Adair (again with no ‘e’s). He then used all those ‘e’s that he’d ‘saved’ to write a novella called Les Revenentes which uses ‘e’ but no other vowels. A Canadian poet, Christian Bök, was interviewed on the programme and he’d written a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters. Michel Thaler wrote a novel with no verbs in it. And so it goes on. One poet, whose name I’ve forgotten, wrote a book of ten sonnets whose pages were cut in such a way that you can create any 14-line sequence you like out of them. To see what he meant, imagine those kids’ books which have a head, body and legs on 3 separate segments of the page so that you can create different combinations by matching the different heads, bodies and feet. The mathematical permutations when you have 10 poems of 14 lines each are such that it’s effectively a book you can never finish reading.

The theory is that this triggers ideas, inspiration, and forces you to ‘think outside the box’ (apologies for such a gross cliché). But, apart from it being an entertaining sort of game to play for one’s own amusement or a way of saying to the world ‘Look how clever I am’, it’s hard to warm to the idea. I think imposing restrictions is valuable. I used to get students to remove all the adjectives and adverbs from a piece to show them how it affects the narrative tone and pace and, indeed, changes meanings, but these arbitrary and very severe restrictions seem to work against full creativity. You may produce something which obeys all the rules but I can’t help but think that, in doing so, you must surely have had to discard insights and images that would have added to the message you were conveying. It’s form taking precedence over meaning , and the two shouldn’t (and can’t, in my book) be separated.

The one exception I’ve found to that in my own experience is the Fibonacci poem. I’m not a poet and I’m not sure I understand much of the contemporary poetry I read but there’s a beauty and mysterious naturalness about ‘Fibs’, as their devotees call them, which is very beguiling. They’re based on the Fibonacci sequence (which is the thing behind the arrangement of sunflower seeds, the whirl on a snail’s shell, etc.) The sequence of numbers is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Each number is the sum of the previous two. The poems consist of a first and second line with one syllable each, the third then has two, the fourth three and so on. A silly example would be:

Exist in my feet.
They are too far from my ego.


My ego’s safe inside my skull
Far from treading feet.
Held in my

You can write as many lines as you like and even reverse the sequence, which creates interesting shapes on the page too. Mind you, as the final example shows, it can draw you into pretentiousness. I wrote this to try to exploit those shapes. It’s even called Natural Cycle. (Remember, I said I’m NOT a poet.)

Traffic congests and
Planes and trains and automobiles
And all the cacophonic crush of city living
Build to the midday madness, the clamour for success.
The energy drives down the sun
Until the evening

Stirs itself,
And through the darkness
Songs and screams and cries for mercy
And all the lust and hate and buried barbarism
Herald the bleak survival of visceral defeat.
Oblivion crawls through the blood,
The passions falter,
And the sun

I’m certainly not exposing these efforts to suggest any talent on my part but rather to encourage you to have a go. Not necessarily with a view to publication, or even for others to read, but to see and feel how having to work to strict rules can also be liberating.

But, to finish, another example of an Oulipo-type product. One of their techniques is called n+7. It involves replacing each noun in a text by the noun which comes 7 places after it in the dictionary. The programme had one about the Creation which ended with God saying ‘Let there be limit’, which I rather liked. So I’ve just recast perhaps the most famous opening novel sentence as follows: It is a tube universally acknowledged, that a single mandala in possession of a good founder, must be in want of a wildebeest.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A dish eaten cold

It’s 1975. Aberdeen. The beginning of the school year. My daughter needs new shoes. I take her into town. We visit many shoe shops and the silences between us grow longer, the tension mounts higher in each shop. The problem is that we’re not rich and I want her to have shoes that’ll withstand the rigours of school playgrounds whereas she wants things with sparkly bits on them. The expedition ends with nothing having been bought, a ride home in a simmering silence shot through with electric menace, and a resolution on my part never ever to go near a shop with her again.

Now it’s 2007. Brighton. The beginning of another school year. My daughter, who now has four children of her own, needs to get shoes for the eldest. I accompany them. My daughter is far more reasonable than I am as her efforts to persuade her daughter to accept sensible shoes are met with downcast eyes and ‘proofs’ that they’re ugly and that the sparkly ones would be a much better investment. This time, I’m in the sparkly camp. The expedition ends shoeless and in relative silence, broken only by my barely-suppressed, self-satisfied chuckles.

I always liked schadenfreude but when it has a personal twist, it’s even more profoundly satisfying. Grandchildren are a parent’s revenge.

The picture, by the way, is of a 'Garbo' by Carvela which retails at a very reasonable £150. (Aye, right.)

Friday, 20 November 2009

Pomp, circumstance and real stuff

First, the photo – since Marley pointed out that pictures make blogs more attractive and I don’t particularly want to encourage individuals who give a false idea of what men look like (the way the guy did on my last blog), I’m opting for the next best thing (apparently), cute kittens. This one is courtesy of

But it has nothing to do with the blog. In fact, as with the last one, I was intending to write about one thing when a second occurred to give the first a different perspective. That’s the sort of thing that’s behind many of my short stories and plays. I keep a cutting from a newspaper or a note I’ve made and it just sits there waiting. Then along comes something else which completes it or contradicts it or energises it in some way or another and I write about it. That’s less so the case with novels because they develop in such a leisurely way that what may begin as two incidents soon multiplies into several.

Anyway, I spent last weekend visiting my daughter and her two sons in Glasgow. I had a great time but one event set me musing. Every night she reads them a story and, when they’re in bed, sings them a song. I’m not sure how often she changes the song but every time I’ve heard it it’s been ‘Starry, starry night’, or whatever the correct title is. She has a sweet voice, is pitch perfect and it sounds lovely drifting through from the boys’ room. So the two of them are lying there in the dark hearing this just before they go to sleep and I projected into the future and imagined them as grown men, middle aged even, and how suddenly hearing the song broadcast on whatever the medium will be then might affect them. The potential for drama, poignancy, joy, sorrow is enormous.

And I think that’s the way the writing imagination works. Set up a scenario – a man has just had a huge violent row with his wife, or he’s heard the news that he’ll be the next CEO of a major international company, or the doctor calls him in for the results of his tests, or he’s standing in the empty rooms of the house he’s just sold before emigrating to New Zealand, or his wife’s left him – and so on and so on. And, at one of these extremes, he hears the song, or another song that triggers the memory of his mother’s voice.

I know it’s not an original thought. Noel Coward, after all, wrote ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (which, by the way, isn’t as well expressed as it might be; ending the quip with ‘is’ weakens it significantly – the sentence should climax with ‘cheap music’. If only he'd known me, he could have been such a good writer). There were also those powerful plays and films by Dennis Potter which made fantastic use of many old standards. But in this case, it’s the juxtaposition of a moment of exquisite security and loving with perhaps some future turmoil that set me thinking about how the narratives of our lives are far more subtle and textured than many of the fictions we find so entertaining.

And it was while I was wondering how to develop that notion into a blog that we had here in the UK the absurd charade of the Queen’s Speech. For those of you unfamiliar with the rituals, here’s a brief summary.

Queen arrives, puts on special robes and imperial crown, goes into the Lords and says ‘My Lords, pray be seated". Then she nods at the Lord Great Chamberlain to fetch the House of Commons. The LGC lifts his wand (seriously, his wand) to signal to Black Rod (don’t ask) to go and get them. Off he trots (with a police inspector who says "Hats off, Strangers!" to everyone they pass en route). As he gets near to the doors to the Chamber of the Commons, they’re slammed in his face. He has to knock three times with his staff (the Black Rod), and then they let him in.

Oh, that’s enough. I can’t go on. At least the MPs are wearing normal clothes. Everyone else is in breeches, gold stuff, silly hats. It’s embarrassing. And as I was watching all these (apparently) important people doing very silly things, the contrast with the intensity and reality of personal experiences struck me very forcibly. I know that many non-UK residents find these ceremonies admirable and envy us the traditions and so on but how absurd that people who are deciding to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to cope with the global financial crisis, initiating legislation on health, education, crime, poverty and all the rest have to take part in a pantomime.

That ‘starry, starry night’ drifting through the darkness is in a different realm of truth from the pomp, circumstance and ermine robes of our lords, masters (and a tiny sprinkling of ladies).

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The compound accessory reproductive organs of female mammals

This one’s triggered by two things. First, having been accused on Michael Malone’s May Contain Nuts (justifiably, I must confess) of a typical male obsession with the contents of bras, I feel a compulsion to explain myself. Second, from that starting point I arrived at messages on t-shirts and a particularly nasty one. Together, they seem to make it worthwhile posting this. (You may disagree.)

The point de départ, then. The fact that the Sun newspaper in the UK was a hit from day one because it featured a topless page 3 ‘girl’ every day immediately relegates anyone who admires the curves of breasts to a dark, onanistic underclass. There, we (I’m including myself for the moment because I haven’t yet offered any exculpatory evidence to indicate otherwise) hunch in our shifty, fetid corners, slavering, drooling and unconsciously giving in to Freudian longings and urges centred around deeply-buried memories of contented suckling. We’re primitive, unreconstructed creatures led not by what’s in our skulls but rather by an organ that has little to do with rational behaviour. Along with the ‘obsession’ goes the assumption that we have society’s permission to whistle at the owners of the admired appendages, make lubricious remarks and generally be thought of as ‘one of the lads’.

No point trying to deny that the world is crawling with such still-to-evolve individuals. And they make it difficult to articulate a case for the defence. For them, women and their component parts are sex objects, full stop. So how can I say that I find breasts (and many other anatomical bits of women) attractive? I have no urge to grab them, but they’re a source of innocent (yes, innocent) pleasure. (By the way, I'm not impressed by sheer size and certainly not by lumps of silicone such as those which the famous novelist Katie Price hangs on her collar bones, or by whatever it is that's been clamped to the top of Mrs Beckham's rib cage.) It would sound defensive, evasive, even insincere to claim that my response is aesthetic but it’s closer to that than to depraved. I really wish it were possible to tell women one passes in the street that they look good or walk beautifully without fear of being arrested for accosting them and/or making lewd suggestions. Surely they’d be happy to know that they were being appreciated in a totally unthreatening way.

Anyway, this led to the t-shirt messages because, if one’s gaze tends reflexively to drop to chests, one reads all sorts of quips on them and, surprisingly often, they relate to the things which the t-shirt is concealing. Scrawled across two rather large mounds on one were the words:


Another, which I saw in an illustration rather than being worn, had a ‘C’ on the front of the right arm and an ‘L’ on the front of the left. The front of the garment carried other specially chosen symbols, to create this overall effect:


You’ve no doubt seen your own (or maybe even have favourites which you wear) so I won’t multiply the examples. (And, for a wee aside, which has nothing to do with the central point of all this, my favourite t-shirt message is one I saw on a man in one of the less affluent areas of Glasgow. He was an ordinary guy but his t-shirt told everyone:


That is class.)

Anyway, to my final point. On a bus in St Andrews, two of my fellow passengers were biker types – not bikers the way Marlon Brando was a biker in The Wild One, but overweight, unattractive, greasy haired slouchers. They were probably in their early twenties but they didn’t look scary or threatening. Then, when they walked to the front to get off, I saw the message they had stitched across the back of their leather jackets:


If it weren’t such a chilling thought that these individuals considered such an assertion worth sharing with the world, their infinitely sub-Wildean wit could be the source of amused speculation about the number of live girls who’d taken one look at them and said ‘no’ in ways which confirmed their essential impotence. To me, the brash proclamation was born of fear, inadequacy. Let’s face it, you don’t get street cred by confessing to necrophilia. But, for all that these were two sad, unpleasant individuals incapable of seeing how self-defeating their boast was, it left a nasty taste in my mouth and a sadness which soured the rest of the day. And, in the end, I wonder whether the innocence I claim for my appreciation of how women look isn’t after all on the same spectrum as the bikers’ message. I bloody well hope not.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Titles and stuff

I’m lousy at titles. That’s why this blog has such a lazy name. I imagine strangers browsing blog titles to see if anything catches their fancy and (assuming that they’re not looking for specialist material such as ‘Lesbian Kangaroos and their Soft Furnishing Preferences’) quickly passing over the shapeless ‘livingwritingandotherstuff’ to click on grab-you-by-the-throat tags such as ‘GET PUBLISHED’ or ‘WRITE RIGHT, RIGHT? RIGHT’ and perhaps ‘SATAN’S SHOELACE’. (Apologies to any bloggers who may actually have already chosen such gems for their musings.)

On the other hand, making a title specific does commit you to stick to the point. So if you make your point ‘living’, then add ‘writing’, and cover other eventualities with a generic term – ‘stuff’, you’ve created a broad, non-committal context in which to chronicle your torpor or the paucity of noteworthy events in your daily trudge. (And that’s exactly the sort of sentence Elmore Leonard would delete as he re-read it because it ‘sounds like writing’. I’m always reminded of a play in the 70s – I think – which was a hit and starred Albert Finney. One of his lines was something like ‘lurching [or maybe stumbling] from one derelict sunset to the next’. Great words, but not the sort of thing you hear people saying to one another at the check-out.)

But what prompted me to start writing about this? Well, with the focus having been so exclusively on getting the recent book written, I realise that living and writing (and other stuff for that matter) are quite often all the same thing for me. Maybe that’s why Linda chided me for my girlie tendency to analyse – for a lot of the time, I live in my head with my characters. It’s easier to interact with them. I know who they are. I (mostly) know what they’re going to say and do (although, of course, they’re constantly surprising me). But when you’re dealing with real people, who the hell knows what’s going on in their heads? I may have mentioned this before, but it’s one of the reasons why writers find their fiction more real than reality.

So (apart from when I get Facebook messages from a granddaughter telling me I look like a monkey but she loves me anyway), most of my milestones relate to writing. And at last I’m getting to the point because I wanted to tie up a couple of leitmotifs which seem to crop up here (too) frequently – first, another plug for me and second, my laziness.

The plug.
Next year is looking promising. I’ve already mentioned the publication of my historical crime novel, The Figurehead. That’ll be in May. The book I’ve just finished should be ready by the Spring. And I learned recently that one of my short stories has been chosen for the annual anthology Best British Crime Stories edited by Maxim Jacubowski. That should be out in March. I've also got a sci-fi short story (my first) being published in the anthology Maybe Tomorrow by Mythica Publishing.

The laziness.
So, with two books and a story due to appear, I can relax and indulge myself in the usual fantasies of fame and wealth. Add to that the fact that I have two more Jack Carston novels completed and ready for submission, plus a black comedy which sends up the crime genre so that should keep things ticking over. Now, if any publisher were shrewd enough to buy the unpublished ones, it would mean that I could sit back and do bugger all for the whole of 2010.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Me and Sisyphus

OK, it’s over. Well, the first draft is done anyway. A quick recap. A friend suggested I was just the guy to rewrite a book on study skills for a different market from the one in which it was already operating very successfully. I had a meeting with the publisher in mid September and we agreed on a 145,000 word target. My impression was that it was to be delivered in the Spring.

But when I got home from London, there was an email telling me that that was when promotional work would start, which meant having it ready by December. As we exchanged more emails, one apparent bonus was that the total came down to 105,000. But it was only apparent because, as I was writing, I realised that targeting a word count makes no sense. A book will always be as long as it needs to be. As it happens, this one came in at 110,508.

I really need to think a lot more about the experience because it was strange. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written but it was written in the shortest time I’ve ever taken. I had to put everything else aside which, at first, made me resent the fact that it was taking over everything but which, in the end, was sort of comforting. As the chapters piled up it gave the impression of purpose, progress, even meaning, for God’s sake.

Oh, don’t worry, those of you who rely on me to empty the universe of any significance; my fundamental lack of belief hasn’t altered. At times I did think of Sisyphus, but in my case, when I sat down to the next session each day, the stuff I’d already done hadn’t disappeared. (While I’m at it, I need to rethink my whole Sisyphus attitude, too. I mean, I know his acceptance of the futility of what he was doing was a fine example of the indomitability of the human spirit and stuff, but surely the best response to knowing that the bloody rock was going to end up back at the bottom every time should be ‘Sod it’ and go off for a pint. That’s real humanity.)

Anyway, so I started work around 8.30-9 a.m. each day and stopped around 5.30-6. At first, as I said, I resented giving up the time but, as I got into it, it became one of those experiences where you start writing and everything (including self) disappears. In a way, you become the words. When you’re writing fiction, it’s different. Because you’re with the people in your story, interacting with them, recording what they do – but this was a book of advice. I wrote in a loose, conversational style, addressing the advice directly to the reader ‘You’ll find that …’, ‘If you start by …’, ‘Then give yourself a reward …’ – that sort of thing. But the person doing the addressing, while it was me and I was drawing on my own experience as well as the excellent material in the original book, was a sort of construct. I became a writing machine.

And now it’s done, I feel a slight sense of loss. I know I’ll have to edit it and maybe rework some bits, but the regular 8.5 hour days are over and I can start making inroads into the stuff that’s piled up while I’ve been writing it. I suppose it also helped that it was commissioned and therefore will (probably – nothing’s ever certain) be published next year. With fiction, you never know until you start getting the rejection slips.

One silly thing one can do with this sort of project is play statistics. For example – the 110,508 words were written in 29 working days, which is 3810 a day or 448 an hour. But the further you take this, the worse it gets. In the end, it means I was writing just 7 words a minute. 7 words a minute! That’s crap. It’s hardly writing at all. I just timed myself as I was writing this to prove it and, even with correcting typos, I can easily manage 70 words a minute. So in theory I should have been able to write that book in 2.9 days. See? I keep telling you I’m a lazy bugger.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Big Plug

This posting will come as a blow to those of you who come here for spiritual enlightenment or to enjoy an oasis of refinement and culture in your busy schedules. The reason? I’m plugging a book.

No, not the one I’m writing on study skills – that’s now over the 80,000 word mark and will, I hope, be finished well before the deadline. I’ll blog about it when I have time because it’s been a very interesting experience, unlike any writing I’ve done before. Even when I was writing my thesis (just after the relief of Mafeking), I remember the process being one of slow growth, occasional ‘discoveries’ and time to indulge myself with what the external examiner called ‘coups de trompette’, meaning stylistic flourishes (or maybe excrescences). This has been more like an absence. But, as I said, I’ll get back to it.

So, my plug. (Oh, before I get to that, another thing occurs. I’ve recorded three of my kids’ stories about a misanthropic fairy called Stanley and they’re now on You can hear me doing silly voices there.)

Where was I? Yes. It’s my historical crime novel, The Figurehead. It was accepted for publication by Virtual Tales in the USA. It’ll be an e-book and a paperback. I sent it to them last year and was beginning to fear it had been lost in credit crunch melt-downs or something. But no, I got a lovely email from them this afternoon to say it’s in pre-sale mode. Sure enough, there’s the cover on their website and, apparently, if you want a preview and/or a copy, all you have to do is e-mail them at:
and you’ll get information about publication dates, availability, pricing, etc. as soon as it’s available. You’ll also get to read the first four chapters for free before the general public does and a coupon for 40% off the cover price if you buy it from them. No deposits, no commitments, just access to what will be the literary sensation of … er … my house.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Sunday in Paris

Notre Dame - where else?
Before diving back into the book that’s occupying all my hours and will continue to do so until December, I want to grab the chance to prolong an excellent, battery-recharging weekend I just spent in Paris. If you haven’t been there yet, stop what you’re doing immediately and go. The song praises ‘April in Paris’, but you could substitute any month, with the possible exception of August, when the Parisians themselves are on holiday and the place is taken over by foreigners (like me).

The minute we climbed the steps out of the RER and saw the trees, the Boulevard St Michel and the familiar architecture, stresses vanished and we knew that life made sense (even though, only a few hundred metres from where we stood, Sartre had explained so eloquently why it didn’t). Paris is magical – it’s beauty, history, romance, freedom, love, art, architecture, nobility, humanity – as well as bloody good food and even better wine.

And I wanted to share just one of the days – last Sunday. After breakfast at a terrasse looking onto the Luxembourg fountain, we wandered through the Jardins du Luxembourg. London boasts (justifiably) of its parks but those in Paris are of a different order. Dappled shade, all the usual impressionist stuff, trees and open spaces. People everywhere but no sense of crowding. On the pond, model boats, especially two magnificent schooner rigs. Bizarrely, one guy preferred his submarine. It was big and painted the usual sinister black. He launched it; it set out
Luxembourg Gardens
across the pond then it submerged. I need someone to explain to me what pleasure he got out of that. It had a mast thing (presumably an aerial for the radio controls) on the conning tower. On top of that was a tiny green square of material. And that was all you could see, moving along about two inches above the surface. There were the ripples of the wake but no sign of the boat.

All around the edge of the water, very young kids perched and leaned, their parents either deep in chat with friends or welded to a mobile – an obvious demonstration of the French passion for individual freedom. ‘If le petit Bertrand, aged 2, wants to topple into the pond, that’s his inalienable right.’ None did.

Everywhere under the trees – nearby and in the distance – groups of slowly moving Taekwondo practitioners wove their moves. Others performed slow rituals with actual swords, sliding them so close to their bodies that I was surprised the ground wasn’t littered with ears, slices of buttock or other, even more important organs. There were donkeys, ponies, families, couples, readers, joggers, walkers. People sat on the hundreds of chairs spread around the place – so much more inviting than fixed benches. The sun was hot and ‘le tout Paris’ was there enjoying it.

Free concert
We wandered away, down the rue Bonaparte and past a shop I always need to look at. This time in the window there were letters from Louis XIII, the Empress Josephine, Zola, Montesquieu, Sartre and others. Then along the Seine past the Museé d’Orsay, across the river to the Louvre and the Rue de Rivoli. There, as we stood waiting to cross, two young French women asked us the way to the Louvre. We were able to point to the building opposite and say that’s it. I’m not implying they were dumb or anything. It’s just that, around the back and sides, away from the glass pyramid and the amazing approach to the Palais du Louvre, it looks like everything else.

But it still makes Buckingham Palace look like a shed. When I look at the vastness and the glory of the construction, with all the statues and columns and gothic frilly bits, I have conflicting feelings. First, it’s a triumph, a glorious demonstration of what humans can do. Second, it was all built so that one individual who got lucky because the right sperm and egg fused could say ‘Hey, look how cool I am’. On this day of sun, however, the guy’s hubris was forgiven. The palace that people had built for him looked magnificent.

I forgot to mention that, at various points in our meanderings, we’d stop and marvel at the number of significant places we could see around the skyline. Paris is stuffed with them – our particular count on this trip was the Panthéon, the Eiffel Tower (of course), Notre Dame, the Tour St Jacques, the Grand Palais and even, way up north, the Sacré Coeur.

And on and on.

Then, six o’clock, in the tiny church of St Julien-le-Pauvre, the requisite bit of culture. We’d bought the
cheapest tickets for a Chopin recital by Teresa Czekaj. We were at the back and the side and could only catch occasional glimpses of her head as she moved. Needless to say, the performance was astonishing. It’s impossible to create so many complex sounds at such speed with only ten fingers but she did it. But, in my proletarian way and with an eye to which wine we’d try later, I couldn’t help thinking that culture was bloody expensive. We’d paid 20 euros. Then, in the interval, a man suggested we move into some of the empty seats up front. We did so and it was an amazing experience for which I’d have paid twice as much. We moved to a pair of chairs set beside a pillar at the side right at the front. The piano was less than 5 metres away and Ms Czekaj was facing us. The pillar hid the rest of the audience so it was as if she was playing just for us. We saw the music in her face – she was smiling, angry, sad, serene – all sorts of things, and it added a sort of commentary to the music itself, made it even more affecting. And being so near to the Steinway, nothing was lost in the acoustics of the church. The 40 minutes or so of that second half could have been forty seconds or a month – everything was suspended.

Dinner at Balzar and a last wander up the Boulevard St Michel through the still fascinating crowds. Not a bad day.

So if any of you are thinking of buying a place there, I’d be happy to look after it for you while you’re away.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Characters rule

Just before I started doing my Sisyphus bit and learning to love my rock, my friend Jean Henry Mead kindly asked me to contribute as a guest on her blog ‘Writing advice and good books’ at Luckily, I got the bulk of it done before my publisher placed me at the foot of the hill and said ‘That’s the rock, get rolling’. It’s now appeared on Jean’s site and, just to let you know I’m still around, I’m posting it here too. But it’s existence is thanks to Jean. It goes like this …

When I’m writing about writing or answering questions during talks and workshops, my stress always seems to be on characters. Even in seemingly ‘unrealistic’ genres such as fantasy and vampirism, it’s the people who drive the story and hold the reader’s interest. Plots, themes, descriptions – these and other things all play crucial roles but they need beings moving amongst them to give them their point and focus. Even God realised an empty landscape, however beautiful, needed a bit of drama. It was fine to have all these unnamed animals wandering about in lush pastures. Fine but boring. It needed someone to start asking what the point of it all was, maybe a bit of mindless violence, something to disturb the harmony. So he got the clay, made a bloke, nicked a rib and here we are.

For me, stories rely heavily on credible characters. They don’t have to be good. In fact bad characters are often more interesting. Perhaps I’m just saying that because I happen to write crime fiction but even in other genres and in mainstream ‘literary’ novels, the most memorable characters are frequently those with flaws or nasty habits. Maybe that’s a comment on human nature – perfection or an approximation of it can’t be trusted. Whatever the reason, we need them.

So this is just some random thinking about how writers make their characters live. And, first of all, there’s an alchemy going on that lets us visualise and/or empathise with a character in the act of creation. We become the persons and we know what they’re thinking and feeling. We hear their voices dictating to us. I read one writer somewhere saying that writing is like acting in that respect. And it’s true. The problem is the duality that forces on us. We’re actor and writer simultaneously. Consider this:

Joe watched his wife chopping the onions. Why did she always start cooking when they were in the middle of a row? It never solved anything; just left the enmity simmering. His brown eyes narrowed as he felt his own anger return.

It seems to be an event we’re seeing through Joe’s eyes. But if that’s the case, how do we know they’re brown? If you see the colour of someone’s eyes you’re looking at them not through them. The point being that we need to be both actor and director, which are separate skills.

But there are easier ways round it. Their names for a start. Henrietta Willoughby probably won’t be in the same class at school as Doreen Norsworthy or Sharon Biggs. Jezza Jackson won’t be hanging out with Hugh Denbigh. And they’re subtle separations that can be achieved without resorting to Arthur Wobblebottom or Dickson Ponsonby-Smythe clichés.

Another short cut to characterisation is to use idiosyncrasies and gimmicks. You can give someone a nervous tic, a stutter. He can chew a toothpick, always sit with his feet on his desk, wear strange shirts. It’s a cheap way of creating instant character. The danger is in overdoing it. It’s too easy for such people to be two-dimensional, predictable. They become the tic.

Just as quick but more subtle is to alter some aspect of the setting so that the person inhabiting it has some mystery about them. Look at a normal scene and remove one element from it. A woman may have no photographs in her house, a man comes home and always puts his house keys in a small cupboard high on the wall of the entrance hall. Another wears a small brooch intended for a female and makes sure he always hooks it into any new jacket, sweater or shirt he puts on. When you do this you’re creating characters by making the reader ask WHY?

The importance is in the specificity of the detail. Vagueness and generalities contribute to flat, dull writing. And it brings us to the tired old bit of advice: show don’t tell. It may sound corny but it’s true. Don’t tell the reader that your character’s unhappy; show him with details of behaviour (tears, a trembling lip, angry driving, a clenched fist). Don’t tell him a man is tall. Show the man ducking under an awning, or curling up to get into a small car. Showing gives your story and your characters ambiguity, mystery. When you say ‘George was a miser’, that’s that. But when you say ‘George picked up the coins, felt their hard edges, and, a smile creeping across his lips, dribbled them through his fingers into the box’ you’re getting more than a label. You’re still telling, but you’re telling more. Then, the reader will be pleased to note that George’s mobile always rings just as it’s his round in the pub. They’re just little touches but they give the reader the chance to collaborate with you.

Another example of that sort of collaboration comes when you use the old trick of Typification. Simply by beginning a sentence ‘She was the sort of woman who …’ you invite the reader to supply the personality. Add whatever you like to the formula and you have instant characterisation ‘… always buys organic vegetables’, ‘… wears dresses a size too small’, ‘… plays the men at their own game’. There are several different ways of introducing the idea: ‘Men like him always tend to .…’, ‘He was everything you’d expect of a beer-swilling rugby player’ and so on.

But that’ll only give you the basis. You then need to refine it to keep the reader’s interest. And that’s where (once again) asking ‘WHY?’ is useful. Try giving a character two layers. On the surface, for example, he drinks a lot, spends as much time as possible in the pub, talks rubbish. But when he goes home, he plays Mozart. As a student, I used to work as a builder’s labourer. On one site, I worked with a carpenter who’d read all of Balzac and wished he’d written more. The questions that throws up create instant complexity.

Two final points, a Scottish writer, Isla Dewar, once said at a conference, ‘give your character room to dance.’ That’s a great way of reminding us to let our characters have the space to be themselves. We can kick-start them, but then let them go where they want.

And finally, I can’t resist (yet again) insisting that hell is other people. On the flimsiest of evidence, we’re all ready to ascribe characteristics to people, even ones we don’t know. But this time, it’s in our favour; we can rely on the reader’s anticipations. Give them a hint, then let them do the work.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Shazam and other transforming words

Acutely aware that I need to up the blog rate, I scribbled the following on the plane as I flew home to Aberdeen yesterday. It turned into what I hoped was a light-hearted piece but the denouement was cruel. It went as follows:

Soon I’ll be home after a few days in London. Not my favourite city (Paris is way ahead in that race) but an exciting, fascinating place to be all the same. The impression everywhere is that things are happening, people are on their way somewhere. Even the Trafalgar Square tourists and the Regent Street shoppers seem purposeful. Actually, come to think of it, maybe that’s why I prefer Paris. Over there, they stop and sit sipping coffee and Pastis to watch the others go by. I know it’s a cliché but they do linger over seemingly endless lunches and, rather than try to catch up with time, they’re savouring it as it passes. It suits my preference for languor over action.

Having said which, one of the reasons for my trip was to meet with a publisher to discuss writing a 145,000 word non-fiction book. It’s an interesting, challenging project and, unlike with fiction, there’s a guarantee of publication (unless I make a cock-up of it all). It means setting aside the languor and working full time to meet the deadline. I have no idea what’ll happen to the blogging but I hope I’ll see it as relaxation and not disappear altogether.

I intended to make this a relatively straight, informative posting, but the notion just came to me that this writing business fits into all the superhero stereotypes. People such as Billy Batson and Clark Kent live along their ordinary lives, lost in the crowd. Suddenly, duty calls and, with a quick detour to a phone box (harder and harder in these days of mobiles/cell phones) or a cry of ‘Shazam’, they’re transformed into an extraordinary being. And so it is with writers.

There they are tweeting, trying to remember the lead singer of some forgotten 70s group for a Facebook challenge and generally behaving like all the inadequate mortals around them when suddenly they get the tap on the shoulder from their muse, agent or publisher and Blat! they morph into creators of new universes, using their powers to help others escape the mediocre. Only when the job is done do they switch off their power source or put down their pen and disappear back into the humdrum.

Trouble is, it takes Captain Marvel and Superman maybe twenty minutes to stop Jupiter crashing into the McDonald’s where some 5 year old kids are celebrating a birthday party – the poor bloody writers have to keep it up (and you can choose any of the double entendres you prefer at this point) for months.

Ah good. I’ve set the self-pitying tone which will no doubt be the counterpoint to the next six months or so.

And that was it. But then I got home, opened up the emails and was faced with a nice, polite message from the publisher saying it would be good if the book could be finished by the end of the year. I resisted the temptation to ask which year he had in mind. But it does give an ironic twist to the notion of the superhero. I must learn to resist the temptation to whinge. You never heard Superman begging Lex Luthor to take a time-out.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Interview, article and fun

This is an extremely lazy blog (but what else would you expect of me? I've already insisted frequently that I'm sloth personified.) It's just that I did an interview with and a short article for Linda Faulkner a while back and she's now published them at


I suppose I could simply copy the content here but, since the initiative was Linda's, it's right that they should be read on her site. (See? What a combination - indolence and integrity.)

But I will add a little anecdote about yesterday. It's one of those writing things that happen which has a distinct feelgood aspect to it.

I gave a talk to a 'discussion group' here in Aberdeen. About two dozen women d'un certain âge (and mostly older than that). I talked about my books, various things about being a writer. Then, for the last 10 minutes, I got them to create a couple of imaginary characters and tell me about the links between them. At first they insisted they couldn't do that, they weren't authors like me. So I just got them to give me a couple of names, then asked them ‘What’s he look like? Where does he work? Is he married?’ Etc., etc.

20 minutes later, they were still adding details to their portrait of a couple. First there was Jack Smith, a paunchy, 50 year old bus driver who'd been jilted by a girl way back and didn't trust women. Jack was dissatisfied with his life and had unspecified urges. The woman was one of his passengers, Betty Sinclair, 40 and single because her first and only lover had been killed. Their eyes met in his rear view mirror and that was it for both of them. But then his nephew, a 20 year old student at the university who worked at B and Q 3 days a week, came into the picture ... And we had to leave because the janitor kicked us out. It was great fun and they were all surprised to find themselves capable of imagining it all. As we all left, they were walking out in twos and threes, all developing their versions of what happened next. The important point was that I'd contributed nothing to the creation of the characters - everything had come from them. It was great fun.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

What makes a good novel?

In the course of an interview earlier this year, Norm Goldman, the publisher and editor of, asked me what made a good novel. My thoughts turned immediately to the well-known Somerset Maugham quip, which is (approximately) ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’. In fact, it’s a hard question and answers may even vary depending on the sort of novel you prefer to read. But the scope (and looseness) of the form almost encourages diverse responses. I think mine are pretty basic.

First, you have to believe what’s happening in the pages, even if it means stepping outside what’s normally called ‘reality’. The hero may be a battle-scarred galaxy wanderer with green blood and a prehensile nose, but if you’re interested in him and care what happens to him, you’ll read on. In fact, I’m sure I’d find such a character far more sympathetic and interesting than the pieces of cardboard that masquerade as characters in the Dan Brown epics. (Sorry, Dan, if that upsets you. Go and read your bank balance, that’ll cheer you up.) Sci-fi may hop from planet to planet or past to future as if they’re neighbouring streets, fantasy may move into fifth, sixth or other dimensions, vampires may even overcome mortality itself but, in each case, if there’s a commitment to and a concern for the creatures living the story, you’re held by them.

So the primary quality of a good novel is its ability to make you care about its characters, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality. It’s your empathy/sympathy that guarantees the authenticity of their world. If you’re involved in it it must, by definition, be real.

Another obvious quality must be the page-turning one. You have to want to know what happens next. Sometimes, the intensity of the emotions involved (yours as well as the characters’) transcends the actual story but usually there’s a journey to make, problems to be solved, setbacks to be overcome. I’d argue that these, too, depend on the characters and their interactions, but as a plot develops, it renews those chars, gives them opportunities to redefine themselves, makes them harder or easier to like. They can’t grow in a void, they need to be tested, questioned.

Then you get to the other qualities, the sub-texts, themes – all those things which, for some students in tutorials, ‘spoil’ the novel. ‘Why do there have to be meanings?’ they ask. ‘Why spoil the story by analysing it, taking it apart?’ And it’s not easy to answer those questions. If they’re enjoying reading something, that should be sufficient in itself. On the other hand, a closer look at the text can make it even better as echoes are heard, hidden motives are revealed, characters are exposed as being not just individual psyches but representatives of greater truths. But even if they resist the analytical urge, readers will still be affected by the great novels in ways of which they may be unaware, but which come from subtler processes than ‘good stories’ or identifying with the people in them.

It’s the things that make a good novel great which are the hardest to pinpoint. They’re the result of some extra elements that the better novelists achieve, a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggests undercurrents, a significance just beyond your perceptions. Even after you’ve finished reading, your mind keeps returning to what’s happened or to an image because it’s stayed with you, disturbed you or made you smile. These are things whose meaning goes beyond their own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about indefinable forces.

And these 'extras' are fundamental to the form. Even with novels which are too easily dismissed by the (seeming) cognoscenti as ‘mere genre’ novels, these forces are at work. If readers are lifted from their prescribed present into a realm where unicorns graze and everything is possible, their experience of life is enhanced. Whether this happens from reading Tolstoy or a hospital romance is irrelevant. The point is that it happens.

The novel is a great form. It gives you space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s the final beauty of the form and one I mention ad nauseam: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. It’s a strange but powerful intimacy between the two.

Oh, why the picture at the top? No reason really. Just a gimmick. And yet ... what's the story behind it? Why the out of focus door? The season is obviously spring - so what? Is the fact that laburnum seeds are poisonous part of it? What's going on beneath its innocence? What does it 'mean'? What does it need to make it part of a novel? Over to you.

Friday, 28 August 2009


Yesterday, I had my first request to write a guest blog. Very flattering (and yet another chance to procrastinate). The site in question is Who Said Pixies Are Rational Creatures? ( It’s aimed at writers and readers of fantasy and historical fiction. OK, I’ve written a historical novel, a historical short story, some kids’ stories about a fairy called Stanley who lives under the dripping tap in my bedroom and recently, to my surprise, I had a short story accepted for a fantasy/sci-fi anthology. In other words, while not totally ignorant of the fantasy genre, I know far less about it than the other people who write for and read that particular blog. Sha’el, who extended the invitation to me, gave me carte blanche, even floating the literary and philosophical potential of postings on a picnic or maybe belly button lint, but it’s a fantasy site, so the challenge was to be relevant. And this is the result.

A warning, I have difficulty in taking things seriously. Not those which involve compassion, sympathy, tragedy and all the other personal things, but all those portentous outpourings which fill the news bulletins and wise newspaper columns. My intention is not to judge, undermine, satirise or otherwise criticise the fantasy genre. I have many friends who write romantic novels and, just like crime novelists, they’re constantly having to put up with seemingly innocent observations which suggest that they’re somehow involved in an inferior form of literature. No doubt fantasy writers experience the same thing. I don’t intend to add to it.

All I want to do is try to imagine myself as someone exploring the genre and give myself a brief fantasy experience. I should confess that I did once write a rather nasty erotic fantasy at the request of the editor of an online magazine. It was based on a conversation I had with a friend who, to my surprise, revealed that, for her, pain was an essential part of sexual pleasure. It seems that it makes the gentler bits even more gentle. In other words, it’s the equivalent of banging your head against a wall in order to feel good when you stop doing it.

So, without any real experience of writing fantasy, and with an unfortunate absence of belief in anything supernatural, what can I think of as a potential fantastical subject in my immediate surroundings (which is where all my other writing ideas are conceived)? How would I set about finding a story and the characters who drive it?
I imagine that, first of all, I’d have to suspend my normal beliefs and perceptions and that they’d be replaced by others which I’d have to invent. Fantasy no doubt frees you but it simultaneously creates other restraints arising from its settings and conventions.

My feet are up on the desk and I have the keyboard on my lap. So what if, instead of being aware of ‘me’ in my head, ‘me’ was over there in my feet? How would that alter my perception of the world? Well, for a start, I’d see less of it – no, not because I’d be inside a shoe most of the time, but because my viewpoint would be so low down. On the other hand, I’d be nearer the earth and could hear and feel its rhythms more intensely.

Wait a minute though. I said ‘see’ and ‘hear’. So do my eyes and ears have to be down there too? If so, it means relocating all my main features around my ankles, which leaves me (and everyone else in this brave new world) with a head which now is basically a bone globe with skin and hair stretched over it. Well, at least that would overcome the problem of not being able to put names to faces.

But no, of course, the sense organs would all be left where they are and the brain could still process their information if it was tucked between some metatarsals. And, since the feet are the things which support my physical self and the brain is the basis of my abstract self, I have a convenient parallel which I can exploit to pretend that I’m saying something significant. So this particular distortion of reality begins to open some interesting possibilities. The cutting of toenails could be seen as a lobotomy, bunions could be the outward manifestations of existential angst, and an entire race of creatures thus constituted might be wiped out by a plague of athlete’s foot.

By now you’ll have either stopped reading or realised that I know even less about the subject than I claimed at the start. The truth is that I’m trying too hard. I know really that all I have to do is free the various objects about me and let them be what they want. The paper knife on the desk will shine and glow when I leave this evening and, as the darkness creeps in, it’ll be picked up by the small creature which left it there early this morning. He, she or it will look from the desk’s plateau across the void to the model boats sitting on the little table, bucking and rocking under the cliffs of books. The carved wooden eagle perched among the flowers outside the window will stretch its wings and carry the creature and its sword to the bottom of the garden, where the granite wall will open and show the fires flickering up from its depths onto the undersides of the clouds. And then there’ll be the songs and voices, the cries of prisoners, the gropings of blind, lost sisters, the unearthly growling of the ebony dogs.

And suddenly, I get a sort of intimation of the strength of fantasy. When I draw back from my imaginings, what am I left with? Predictability. Everything around me has a function, a specific, defined purpose. Even me. And it makes no concessions to the magic that makes the grasses and flowers outside appear each spring. The clouds aren’t billowing sails of aerial galleons but mere water vapour. The faint tick of the clock is simply an inevitable, mechanical fact, whereas I now know that, at night, it will separate itself from the clock, become the pulse of something, supply the rhythm of a creature’s advance.

I said I have no beliefs in the supernatural. This isn’t that, it’s natural. We carry all these race memories, dreams, imaginings; we can release people and things from their restricted functions. Maybe fantasy is simply a means of relaxing our grip on experience, a way to deny chronology and inevitability. Maybe it’s just a less uptight reality.

I’ve gone on too long. With any luck, I’ve managed to state the obvious. On the other hand, Sha’el may be making a resolution to be more careful with her invitations. But whether I’ve been talking utter crap or touching on things that might be true, I’ve enjoyed doing it and it’s been a relaxing piece of self-indulgence.

Thanks for reading this far.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Can you 'train' a writer?

After adding a comment to my friend Gary Corby’s excellent blog ‘A dead man fell from the sky’ ( he asked whether I had an opinion about a question in one of the other comments. Since it’s central to writing, I thought it would be worth replaying it and my response here.

The question came from someone whose friend had suggested that he needed some form of training (in connection with his writing). This friend said to him ‘why don’t you attend a writing course?’ and he was wondering whether it would be worth doing so. My response was as follows:

The question would need an extended debate really but my quick(ish) response is: first, who is this ‘friend’ and what are his/her qualifications as a literary critic? What exactly does he/she mean by suggesting you’re not ‘trained’? Is it even possible to ‘train’ someone to write? I think if the impulse to write is there, that’s the main qualification to do so. We all learn as we write, we refine and adapt our style and vocabulary to each subject.

If I’m asked for one piece of advice to offer would-be writers, I usually say ‘Trust your own voice’. By that I mean don’t get fooled into thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to write. It’s better if you can spell and if your grammar’s not so feeble that your sentences are incomprehensible but outside those ‘restrictions’, any mode of expression is legitimate. If it’s way out of line with ‘normal’ speaking and writing, you may find it hard to get an audience but the important thing is not to think you need big words, flowery phrases or ‘writing’. Read Elmore Leonard’s 10 ‘rules’ for writing – they’re amusing and to the point (and valuable).

I’m wary of creative writing courses. I’m sure there are some brilliant ones, but there are also plenty which indoctrinate their graduates into parroting stuff about shifting points of view, not starting paragraphs with ‘And…’ and all sorts of other things that have little to do with creativity.

I should also have added something to forestall/disarm/whatever those who always gallop into such debates to champion the sanctity of rules. I'm not suggesting that there are no rules and I agree that, if one knows and respects them, one is capable of producing copy which has greater potential for impact and effectiveness. But there's a difference between 'you must know and understand the rules before you break them' and 'rules must never be broken'.

(And, as a postscript, let me ask how many of you noticed the grammatical mistake I made in the opening sentence. I only spotted it myself on rereading and decided to leave it there as a stimulus for those of you inclined to fulminations.)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

The day started with a nice surprise. Despite my continued insistence that I’m rubbish at this blogging business, I found that I’d been awarded the Kreativ Blogger stamp of approval, thanks to Linda M Faulkner’s recommendation. Linda’s on my own list of blogs with her On Writing. You’ll find it at So thank you Linda for a positive start to my Wednesday.

Now, just in case the award comes with not only prestige but a gold statuette and a huge cheque, acceptance of it involves certain rules, which are as follows:
1. Thank the person who nominated you and link to him/her.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting – or that they don't know.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.
And that’s it.

So, 7 ‘interesting’ things about me. Hmmm, can’t think of any. So 7 things you might not know.
1. I’ve had 5 major job changes through my life and each one involved a drop in salary.
2. I’m tall so, for the moment, the only people who know how bald I am are the ones on the top decks of buses.
3. I’m in slight awe of my son (who’s now a father himself) because when he was very little, his favourite colour was black and his favourite animals were pigs. In both cases it was ‘because nobody else liked them’.
4. I’m depressed by any form of bigotry except my own.
5. I frequently seek cheap laughs through inappropriate references to Mother Theresa and places with silly names.
6. I don’t like reading books ‘which are good for me’.
7. (This is a risky one) I don’t like brandings such as Krazy Kuts. (Sorry Kreativ.)

Next, some of my favourite blogs.
A dead man fell from the sky – varied and always interesting offerings from Gary Corby

An awfully big blog adventure – which calls itself the ramblings of a few scattered authors and never fails to amuse and provoke.

May contain nuts – Michael Malone’s hilarious accounts of his doings and writings and, especially, his amazing conversations with his wee son.

Murderous musings – Jean Henry Mead’s postings about all aspects of Mystery writing …

… her interviews with and articles from other writers of the genre, Mysterious people …

… and also the blog which does what it says in the title Writing advice and good books

And finally, one which never pulls any punches and yet still entertains and celebrates writing and writers – Anne Rooney’s Stroppy author’s guide to publishing