Friday, 29 April 2011

Equals - a play in 3 acts

I can’t resist a mini-blog on such a day.

Scene 1. Interior. House on a council estate. Mother and Boy are having breakfast.
Boy: All that work paid off, Mum. I got five A grades.
Mum: I know, son. I’m proud of you.
Boy: Think I’ll go to St Andrews.
Mum: Sorry, son. It’s 9 grand a year there.
Boy: Oh. OK. Never mind, I’ll get a job instead.
Mum: There aren’t any.
Boy: Oh, OK. Any more coffee?

Scene 2. Interior. Palace or castle or some other big, posh place. Phone rings. Boy answers it.
Boy: Hello.
Mum (on phone, sounding happy): Good morning.
Boy: Hi Mum.
Mum: I’ve made you Duke of Cambridge.
Boy; Really? Thanks, Mum.

Scene 3. Some time later.
Sun explodes.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


For a change it’s not laziness that’s stopped me writing anything here for a while, it really is busy-ness. So take a deep breath and, if you want to, try to absorb the following ugly, unprofessional sentence listing my current activities: I’m concocting a plot for a charity evening at which paying customers do CSI experiments, interview ‘suspects’ and try to solve a mystery; Brilliant Workplace Skills (what an ironic title in the circumstances) is crawling towards its final chapters; I’m proof-reading the manuscripts of 3 of my books to try to eradicate those persistent bloody typos; Stanley has stamped off to 2 UK publishers to try to get himself printed here; The Figurehead is moving to Pfoxmoor because Virtual Tales is no more; Shadow Selves is also moving there, where it’ll be joined by a new Jack Carston mystery, Unsafe Acts; I’m looking for appropriate images to use on the covers of the new editions; and, harnessed to the seemingly unlimited energy and enthusiasm of Diane Nelson, who not only writes her own novels, short stories, flash fiction, edits the work of others, tweets, contributes extensively to Facebook and has to look after horses and things, I’m trying to encourage people to read The Sparrow Conundrum.

You see, I told you it was ugly. My excuse is that it’s a way (stylistically) of conveying the mayhem of my days. It also serves another sly purpose because this blog’s about how important it is, especially in rhetoric or humour, to put the elements of a sentence in the right order. I’ve always known that, and I’ve even examined it in some detail in Just Write, but it was a news item in yesterday’s Guardian that reminded me of it.

It concerned a 15-year-old schoolboy, Joe Cotton, who’s the first ‘child’ (as the Guardian called him) ever to address the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers. He was speaking about some of the cynical, sinister ideas of our Education Secretary, Michael Gove, one of which is to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to help with his budget cuts. This is what young Joe was quoted as saying: ‘Well, I don’t know how nifty Michael Gove thinks he can be with a loaf and some fishes, or even a bus pass and some textbooks, but he’d need nothing short of a miracle to replicate the benefits of EMA with that budget’.

First, I admire enormously a 15-year-old with the confidence to stand up in front of a hall full of teachers and articulate the feelings and ideas of his generation, and I’ve no doubt his words – and that sentence – were well received. But let’s be picky with its structure. The word ‘nifty’ is good. It implies sleight of hand, ducking and diving, smoke and mirrors. Applying it to one of Jesus’ miracles puts both it and the ‘miracle’ in a different light. There’s no longer the po-faced, respectful kow-towing to the specialness of divine intervention; instead it conjures up (see how subtle I was there?) a seedy bloke on a music hall stage with a wand, hat and rabbit – or, if you like, ‘a loaf and some fishes’.

So it’s good, and it’s worth a laugh. BUT …

The laugh has to be delayed while he finishes the rest of the sentence, and that ‘rest’ consists of a much weaker joke, then a serious political point and finally an ‘explanation’ of the loaf and fishes reference (in the word ‘miracle’). So, if we get rid of the weaker – and rather confusing – joke, the sentence has 4 elements it needs to juggle:

1. the benefits of EMA (agreed fact)
2. the budget (boring economics)
3. the fact that 2 and 1 can’t coincide (self-evident truth)
4. the gag of Michael Gove, using Joe’s idea (and words), ‘being nifty with a loaf and some fishes’.

By rewriting the sentence and putting the elements in that order, the good gag is made even better and more effective because it’s now the punchline and also offers light relief after the seriousness of 1, 2 and 3.You can then, of course, refine it even further by moving around the words inside each element. The punchline, for example, works better if you make it ‘being nifty with some loaves (pause) and a fish’. It’s not rocket science but it is the difference between writing and editing.

Whenever I had one to one tutorials with students about their writing, I frequently got them to isolate the different elements in a sentence, swap them around and see the difference it made to its meaning, impact, power. If you haven’t tried it, have a look at some of your own writing now and see whether it could work for you.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The London Book Fair and a bribe

Yes, it's that cover again - but bear with me, it's relevant.

I’ve always been partial to a little bribery and corruption as long as I’m on the receiving end of the profits, so for a change this will be a mercifully short blog which ends with an offer you may find it hard to refuse.

First, though, some abbreviated thoughts on the London Book Fair, around which I wandered aimlessly for two of its three days last week. We all know how many hundreds of thousands of books are being produced each year but, sitting in our studies or kitchens or attics or yachts or sheds or wherever as we scribble our masterpieces, we still manage to generate the notion that readers will snap up our babies the minute we let them out. But when you see row upon row of stalls, with crowds milling round them all, smartly dressed people sitting at tables with impressive document holders before them deep in earnest discussions with other movers and shakers, huge adverts for books by people you’ve already heard of and who hardly need the PR, you start to think that the wee label you’ve pinned to yourself which identifies you as an AUTHOR is the equivalent of wearing a yellow sack, ringing a bell and shouting ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ as you move through it all.

At the same time, it gives a sort of smug satisfaction that all these people are only here and only earning a living because writers write books. When it’s laid before you in this way, with translators, little independent publishers, foreign rights, niche markets, huge publishing empires and God knows what else, it’s a pulsating proof that the industry is enormous and dynamic. So vast, in fact, that you get this ambivalent feeling that your ambitions are presumptuous and yet there must be a wee corner in it somewhere for you.

But it doesn’t feel like the place that you can go up to someone on one of the stalls and say ‘Hey, I’ve written this great book. Want to read it?’ The response would range from a puzzled, concerned look to an old Anglo-Saxon invitation to go away. My impression, in fact, was that this wasn’t about books, but about deals. And that’s fine because that’s how it works. We just have to make sure one or more of our books is/are part of those deals.

Anyway, those are the impressions I came away with. Now to the bribery. I’ve already told you that The Sparrow Conundrum is supposed to be funny and I’ve encouraged you to contribute to the funds which will buy my tax haven property by buying it. But for five lucky people who haven’t, I have a little deal. On Smashwords, the ebook version sells for a ridiculously low $2.99 (about £1.80). It already has 2 5-star reviews on Amazon UK and is obviously the best and funniest book that’s been written in this room for well over a week. So … all you have to do is leave a comment on this blog. It doesn’t have to be long – just something to show you’ve been here. If more than five comments appear (dream on, Bill), I’ll put the names in a hat and choose five, each of whom will get a coupon code to buy the book at half-price. That’s $1,50 (90p) for a masterpiece. You’ve got until the end of the month. Good luck.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Curiouser and curiouser

It’s easy enough to imagine how Stone Age people started making their stuff. Ugg probably stood on a stone, cut his foot, swore, felt sorry for himself but at some point made the connection between the flint being sharp and therefore just the thing to shave with – so stone tools were born. What isn’t so easy is to conjure up how Bronze Age people started doing whatever you have to do to make bronze. It isn’t as if their equivalent of the media started saying it was the dawn of a new era – the Bronze Age – which made everybody want to be trendy so they all got bronze-making stuff from their Wal-Mart. It needs mixing and heating and pouring and things.

And then, when the Iron Age arrived, it was even more complex because at least with copper, it flowed when it was heated and it was a nice colour so you could see it, but iron ore looks like rubbish, and there’s no melting and flowing and prettiness. And yet they somehow knew or found out that if you added it to a mixture of tin and copper and lead (I think – I don’t have to be meticulous with my research for musings such as this) it made it all less brittle, you could hammer it into shape, shrink it onto wheels to make tyres, and the ingredients were all nearby anyway so there was no need to spend hours stuck in traffic jams on the trade routes to get copper.

So what the hell has this got to do with anything? Well, I was listening to a podcast of a great BBC programme this morning as I was riding my bike. It’s called In Our Time and it deals with all sorts of subjects and is proof that dumbing down hasn’t yet penetrated every corner of life. They were talking about the Iron Age and there are so many mysteries about how some things came about that it made me wish I could go back and see what was happening.

And that in turn made me think of those celeb questionnaires which ask questions like ‘What was the best kiss of your life?’, ‘How would you like to die?’ and ‘If you could go back or forward in time, what period would you like to visit?’ I could answer the first two easily, but for the third, there’d be too many possibilities. Even if you just restrict it to travelling back in time, there are so many things to witness, to learn, to marvel at. We could see who had the idea of riding horses and how they set about doing it, watch people daubing stuff on cave walls, find out just how sophisticated the Greeks and Romans were and what Stonehenge was really for. Then going the other way, we’d meet extra-terrestrials, see babies being born with their iphones and ipads already charged and wired into their brains – all sorts of stuff.

And what it all boils down to is that, while everyone lists the same sort of characteristics when it comes to writers – a way with words, good observational skills, the ability to empathise, a vivid imagination – they don’t use the word ‘curiosity’ nearly as frequently. While we remain curious, we’re still alive, we still engage with our surroundings and with other people. I can’t imagine a state in which being curious about something wasn’t part of the equation. Books telling people ‘How to write’ should always encourage readers to ask ‘What?’, ‘Who?’, ‘When?’, ‘Where?’, ‘How?’.

And perhaps most of all, ‘Why?’ – because it’s usually the hardest of all to answer.