My unseeing gaze traverses from my editor’s email on the computer screen to the weary old chest standing on the floor next to my desk, pretending innocence. Logic, once my dear and trusted friend, shies back in revulsion from what my mind knows to be true. I spit the bite of mouldy pizza crust that my hand must have picked up on its own accord into the paper bin. The remainder of the slice follows close behind.
Again, I squint at the email, this time noticing the date in the header with a feeling of disbelief. It certainly does not seem like three weeks since I stubbed my toe on the chest in front of my apartment door on my way out. It doesn’t seem that long since I picked up the topmost book from the first of three dusty piles inside, not realising that the first of them, chronologically speaking, was on the bottom. Assuming that it was my editor’s misguided attempt at realism, or humour, I opened the book. Vaguely, I remember picking up the phone to call her, to complain that she could at least have the author type up his manuscript, and that she has worked with me long enough to know the languages I can and cannot translate. Yet even while the phone was ringing, I took a second glance at the cramped handwriting, and what had seemed an unreadable mess of characters in a foreign alphabet only a moment ago dissolved, and became… what I now know as “Common”. I recall flicking back to the first page of the loosely bound volume, and the strange-looking symbols now making sense. It was my name: Kentos. No, well, not my name exactly, but the name of the Quemin I became for the time it took me to translate all three stacks, whose joy and despair, whose triumphs and tragedies I have lived, whose tropical island home – and entire world – seem far more real than the rain now splattering against my dirty window.
I wonder whether these memories that engulfed me so completely will fade like a dream. At least I typed the translation even as I read each volume; the huge document on my hard drive is proof of that. I open it, look up the word count, and frown at my fingers: they should be bloody stumps from typing so furiously in just three weeks. Did I sleep at all? Or, come to think of it, dare I sleep now, lest I wake to find no document, no manuscripts, and no chest, other than in my mind? Will I still be thinking in base eight and say “shelf” and “eighting” instead of thinking in base ten and saying “sixteen” and “sixty-four”? Will I continue to divide my days and nights into eight hands each after a good night’s sleep?
To distract myself from these useless questions, I re-read the email.
I don’t know what to say. I’m blown away. It’s enough for a trilogy. But before we go anywhere with this, I have to know… is it a translation (if so, from what, and from whom?!?) or is it your own? God, I need to get some sleep.
It’s unsigned. Very unlike her, not to be formal, even in emails. I can’t believe she didn’t mention the fact that I sent the document off without any editing, not even bothering to run a spell checker. But what’s more, if she didn’t have the chest deposited outside my door, then… who did?
Rusty hinges squeak in protest as I once again open the plain chest’s rectangular lid. Perhaps another look at some of the pages between the reddish ox-hide covers, with “Academy” stamped on them, in Common of course, can give me a clue as to their origin. As I did three weeks ago, I pick up the topmost volume – are there more now than there were when I closed the lid after finishing the translation? – and let it fall open at random.
I whimper in helpless dismay as I realise that I am again looking at symbols I don’t know at all. But… I still know Common, and even Quemin. This large, bold and aggressive hand bears no resemblance to Kentos’ tiny, meticulous writing style. Have I missed one of the books? I turn back to the first page, and my heart simply refuses to continue beating.
“I know you!” I whisper hoarsely when at last it jump-starts again. “I almost killed you.” My hands are shaking so hard that I almost drop the book. Suddenly, I know. I understand. With great care, I place the book on the floor, then the next on top of it, continuing until I am holding the last book of the first pile in my hands. I open it, and, somehow, a new document is already open on my screen. I prepare to again immerse myself in that other reality, to become someone else once more, knowing that what little of me I leave behind in this reality will take care of me, from bodily functions to keeping up with translating the experiences flooding my mind.
Then again, I am clearly no expert on what is real and what is not.
A recent post from Nicholas C. Rossis where he published his short story, The Hand of God, on his blog reminded me of a short story I’d written quite a while ago. My dilemma was that I wanted to share it with the writers in my “blog circle”, but I didn’t want to just publish it publicly on my blog, just in case I ever decided to enter it into a competition or something. Not that I do that (I’m with Mark, the Aspirant Wordificer on that), but I don’t want to burn bridges just because I’m not sure I’ll ever use them.
So I’m semi-publishing (if that wasn’t a word, it is now) my short story by password-protecting the post. That’s the best solution I could come up with for now. That way, it’s not really published, but anyone who reads my blog (there aren’t that many anyway 😉 ) can contact me (you can find my email address on my about page) and I’ll happily send them the password required to access the short story.
Here’s the password-protected post containing my short story, Big Bang:
Feel free to send me feedback via comments or email if you do read it.
But please be nice, I’m kind of anxious – I’ve never shown any of my writing to anyone I didn’t know personally! And this short story is from a few years ago… I’ve improved since then!
On second thoughts… be honest. Let me have it.
(No, wait… be nice… no, uhm… AARGH!)
R is for Robin Hobb, my favourite author and probably the author whose writing has most inspired me to attempt to write myself. Two of my previous A to Z challenge posts, the very first one on Assassin’s Apprentice and the “F” post on Fitz and the Fool, have featured content related to Robin Hobb’s work, so today, I’ll try to minimise the swooning and just write a little about the person behind the pseudonyms.
Wikipedia will tell you that Robin Hobb’s real name is Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, and that she published a number of books under her first pen name, Megan Lindholm, before taking on more epic fantasy as Robin Hobb, starting with the Farseer Trilogy. She still writes using both names and uses different styles for both; Megan Lindholm books seem to be a fair bit shorter while Robin Hobb’s are more epic in scope. Well, unless you count short stories, which are also kind of… er, short.
Margaret/Megan/Robin will be making appearances in Sydney and in Perth (where I live) in June, and I’m looking forward to being able to see her in person (without gushing or screaming like a teenager seeing The Beatles, hopefully) and getting her to sign one of my books (oh, but which one?).
If you’re a writer looking for some great advice, and the secret of how you can become a writer, check out Robin’s excellent post on I Want To Be A Writer, But…. Ok, I’d better hit the “Publish” button now because it’s nearly midnight and this post needs to be for today.
Any favourite writers or other idols you’re looking forward to seeing in person? Let me know in the comments.
Most people would have read the “five monkeys in a cage” tale. If not, google it or (if you’re lazy), watch the summary on vimeo. Essentially, it is a tale encouraging us to question why things are sometimes done the way they are done with no apparent reason.
Today, I read fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s nice post on “Adverbs… yes or no?” and I agree with her about adverbs getting a bad rap (not “wrap”, by the way 😉 ), but couldn’t help but notice that some of the comments there were fairly one-sided and “anti-adverb”. Is comparing people who advise against using adverbs to the five monkeys left in the cage a little extreme? Perhaps, but so is flat-out advising against the use of adverbs.
Adverbs are not evil, people.
As with so many things, the importance is to use adverbs in moderation. Granted, many of the commenters did advise moderation, and some pointed out why their overuse should be avoided. I don’t disagree with that. But saying their use is the “easy way out”, or a “shortcut”, that removing all adverbs from a manuscript makes it “stronger”, and that “said” should never be modified with an adverb? Really? I don’t want to offend anyone, and I don’t want anyone committing the strawman fallacy of claiming that I advocate liberal use of adverbs in all styles of writing (I don’t), but that just sounds like parochial adverb-bashing to me.
I also noted (with the slightest of smirks, I must admit), that those with adverb-allergies don’t mind using rather long adverbial phrases. How is that any better?
Journalism is probably an area where adverbs should be avoided more than in fiction. Sections in fiction where the reader should be left to fill the partially-drawn canvas with her own imagination should have fewer or no adverbs.
However, adverbs can (I stress can) be useful: they can clarify, modify, moderate, strengthen, explain; they can be elegant, precise, and more succinct than a laborious adverbial phrase. I suspect a number of adverb-despisers don’t realise how heavily they use adverbial phrases, and that sometimes – sometimes – a good adverb can be better. Adverbs have their place in first-person perspectives, for instance, where the narrator’s opinion should colour the reader’s impression.
I see close similarities between what is considered to be “good writing” and what is considered to be “elegant programming” (in my day job). Inexperienced writers, like inexperienced programmers, tend to sometimes follow certain patterns, or do too much or too little of something. Editors or code reviewers pick up on these patterns and, in formulating advice on how to prevent such anti-patterns, sometimes generalise a little too much, or state their advice as though it was doctrine. Such advice has its use, but experienced writers or programmers should take this advice with a hefty pinch of salt. The turkey city lexicon is a prime example. Know the rules, know the conventions, but also be aware of when and how they should be broken (or at least bent).
The comment that scared me into writing this post was one from a writer who said he was new to sharing his writing, hadn’t considered the use of adverbs too much, and now thought he should indeed remove adverbs to make his writing stronger. Please… let’s not create more monkeys who do things just because “that’s the way things are done around here”.
Wow, I can’t believe it’s been a whole month. (A month and a day, to be exact, but I didn’t have time to blog yesterday.) Compared to many other bloggers, who have been at it consistently for years, my little baby milestone is probably not very significant. But, as I reflect on a month’s blogging, I feel like I’ve already learned so much about blogging, following, and commenting, and I’ve had fun customising my theme.
Yes, there was a bit of a learning curve (and I probably have much more left to learn than I realise), and yes, blogging and reading other blogs, both to get a feel for “how it’s done” and because many of them are, well, interesting, do eat up a chunk of the time that I would otherwise have spent just writing. But even though it’s a different type of writing than what I’m used to, I’ve found myself enjoying the experience – mainly due to the other bloggers whom I’ve read, liked and followed, and who have liked and/or followed me, who have taken a few moments of their precious time to read my ramblings, and perhaps even to leave a comment. To each and every one of you a heartfelt Thanks! I look up to you and hope you’ll continue to read, write, and share.
In my first month, amongst other things, I’ve introduced myself, told you about growing from my initial experience with rejection, ranted about 10 common mistakes I see all too often, recommended designating a creative day to make time for writing in a busy life and reading what you wrote in a different format, rambled on about the literary submission circus (in two parts), and advised you to trust the editing skills of your future self.
Next month will see me attempting to blog 26 times, literally from A to Z, and, having thought about it for a couple of days now, I think I’ve picked out my topic… but that’s another story (post).
I’ve made very little progress writing this week, at least in terms of writing new stuff. However, I’ve recently been busy reading what I’ve written, mainly on the train to and from work, and have been making so many notes of little things I need to change that it took me most of my creative day this week to apply all these improvements to my manuscript. Guess that leaves this weekend to finally make some progress as far as the word-count is concerned.
While reading, I’ve also made notes about ideas I’ve had concerning the ending, but don’t like getting ahead of myself and skipping large sections – I always find I have to edit too much when I do that.1
Many writers say you should write your complete first draft before you go back to edit. The perfectionist in me won’t always let me do that.
Writing away when I’m “in the zone” is great and gets me closer to completing my manuscript much faster than the “write a bit, edit a bit” approach. Occasionally, though, I need to take a step back to see the bigger picture, re-read my work in light of that bigger picture, and adjust what I’ve written accordingly. It stops me from going off on a tangent that’s interesting, but not all that relevant to the story I want to tell, gets me back on track, and lets me insert those all-important little details in the right places, details that will only make sense to the reader later when the right threads are woven together.2
Only very recently have I bothered to think about why it is that certain things work for me while others do not. I suppose I have the fact that I’ve started this blog to thank for making me think about this at all; looking for blog-worthy topics means I have to think about what I do and why I do it as well as doing it.
1 Why does skipping large sections not work well for me?
2 Why does frequent editing work for me when most others advise against it?
Thinking about these questions, I can’t help but think how I sometimes edit my own writing and ask myself, “What were you thinking when you wrote that?” This made me realise that I always look back on my “old self”, if you will (be that the self that started writing many years ago or the more recent self that just wrote the most recent chapter), with an ever-so-slight air of superiority. Why? I think it’s because part of me realises that, right now, I’m ever-so-slighly wiser than I was yesterday, or a week ago, or a year ago. I could be deluding myself, of course, but doesn’t it seem logical that I improve as I write more, read more, think more? I’m certainly not yet at an age where I decline mentally, so I’m at least as wise, or smart, as I ever was… probably more so. Well, slightly.
Once I accept that reasoning, the (slightly uncomfortable) truth is that tomorrow, I’ll be another little bit wiser than I am today.
1 That’s why, if I skip a section now, I’ll have trouble connecting smoothly to it tomorrow – because I’ll know more details about how my story gets there once it does get there. If I have what seems like a great idea about what happens later, notes or fragments should suffice for now. I can edit them in later. Or not, if the “future-me” doesn’t think it’ll work.
2 That’s why I can edit my writing now, but later, I’ll have another idea about how to make a miniscule improvement, how to phrase something less awkwardly, how to make dialogue seem more natural.
Hmm. Maybe that means the writers who say “edit later” are correct after all. I’ll have to think about that one….
Whom do you trust more, the “now-you”, or the “future-you”?
Sometimes this whole submission thing seems to me a little like the Submission Circus I blogged about last time. I apologise to any agents or editors and hope they’ll forgive my exaggerated presentation of how the process can appear from the writer’s side (not that I expect any of them to actually read my humble blog). Of course there’s another side to the Submission Circus.
I get it, I really do. Agents and publishers need to make a living as well, they need – nay, are forced – to make cut-throat decisions to sort the wheat from the chaff. With so many manuscripts to read that reading them – something we all passionately love to do, right? – becomes a tedious chore, and turns even the most enthusiastic professional reader into a cold-hearted cynic, the Powers That Be of the publishing world need some sort of method of wading through the slush piles; there just have to be multiple filters to weed out the various layers of The Unworthy:
- The masses of wannabe-authors who suffer from self-delusion and can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together, let alone a complete story. Not entirely unlike those pathetic dorks who make fools of themselves on TV talent shows, and even though it’s painful in a way because you want to sympathise, the expression on their faces when they realise that they’ve just given their best and the judges are trying not to laugh… is just too delicious. Along with millions of other couch potatoes, you laugh yourself hoarse at those idiots, even though you’d never have the guts to even get up and have a go….
- Those who are, well, not that bad, and something could be salvaged from their manuscript, but only with the help of some book quack. Er, book doctor. Sorry.
- Those who are, grammatically speaking, absolute geniuses, but their book idea has been done before, or is just plain lame. Maybe they end up being cynical enough to become book doctors.
- The writers with the heart of a poet, who, like a grand master pianist, can entwine several harmonised melodies so beautifully it makes your heart ache, make their music tug at the heart-strings, make it invoke the full range of emotions from their audience… their audience of five, three of whom are family members, because, let’s face it, man, who the f*ck wants to listen to “classic” music anymore, get real, that’s so last-friggin’-millenium, dude, shut the hell up and let me check my twitter feed as I roll my eyes.
- Then come the truly talented, who get what it takes to write a story even the twitter generation may want to read, and can do so. But they lose heart at all the obstacles in their way and just aren’t willing to jump through all the hoops. Or they can only receive so many rejections before it gets to them and they can’t take it any more.
- Finally, there is that tiniest of percentages, who persevere through it all, who are realistic about their chances but cling to that glimmer of hope, who learn from their mistakes and who don’t give up.
For a very few of the latter, Lady Luck finally relents and gives them the chance they deserve. They seize that chance by the throat and, well… the rest of us end up reading their books. Maybe.
Kudos to those last few, most of you really deserve it and we wish you all the best (though it’s hard to entirely suppress the suspicion that some got through because they “know somebody”, because occasionally, books get published that shouldn’t).
But my heart bleeds for the writers with the heart of a poet, and the truly talented who lose heart or just don’t persevere long enough, and Real Life just doesn’t wait long enough. Despite being worthy, their stories are lost to us forever.
It’s a little like in school, where the ones that do best are those with above-average intelligence who are also willing to do the boring legwork. To the really brilliant, smarter than the ones who do best but they don’t do as well because they’re either lazy, or rebellious, or they have street smarts but not book smarts, this school rewards system seems rather unfair. Sometimes Real Life is the great leveller, they all find their niche, and the brilliant are able to laugh at the book smart ones who can’t fight their way out of a paper bag, but all too often, that’s not the case. A word to those with the street smarts, though: sometimes, having street smarts means you need to get your hands dirty and do what the book-smart kids are doing.
I don’t have any answers about how to fix the established submissions system. And if I did, I realise it would be nigh impossible to change the existing system, not even over the span of many years. I can only write down my own personal observations about it. Not to whine for the sake of whining, but to encourage others – and myself – not to give up, to accept things for what they are, to persevere, to roll up our sleeves and to jump through the necessary hoops so that one day, baby, one day we’ll be old… but our story will have been told. (Pat yourself on the back if you get that reference.)
Step right in, don’t be shy! No, silly, your time of just watching is over… now you’re the performer. Shout three quick words – choose wisely, for your audience behind the curtain has many more performers to watch, and has watched more than you can count, so you must make it memorable, but hurry! – and off you go, now jump through this hoop and that one, and, wow, that was one terrific quintuple somersault, but sorry, kid, the audience of one (for whom you must perform before you can show your act to the world) stopped watching long ago. Seems she heard those particular three words before. Oh well.
What are you doing, still standing there? Get off the stage, freak! Don’t you realise there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of other performers waiting in the wings for their turn?
There’ll be other towns you can perform in. Not all that many, at least for your particular type of act, but there are others, and maybe the audiences there haven’t heard your three words yet, or you can tweak them slightly. Which won’t matter, because you’ll forget that their hoops are at a slightly different angle, or height, and, well, you should’ve done your homework better to read up on their particular hoops, shouldn’t you?
And what about the remaining twelve towns that, according to your new research, have audiences willing to watch your particular genre of performance? It’ll go a little something like this:
One won’t like that you addressed him by his surname before you started. Too formal, you’ll sound like a pompous prick.
Two won’t appreciate you using her first name. Presumptuous pervert, you.
Three, Four and Five are currently doing something else, but they’ve left assistants (not that you’ll be able to tell the difference) with instructions to send you a very politely worded “thanks, but not quite right for us just now” letter.
Six and Seven will be enthusiastic about helping you, praising you lavishly, but Six’ll want you to first pay some money to his friend, Six Point One, just to help you polish up your act a bit, you know how it is, and then you and Six will take on the world, while Seven will think that your performance would be just perfect if only you’d be willing to take your clothes off.
Eight. Well, Eight will want to watch your performance, but he needs four months to think about whether he really liked it. During those four months, you can’t perform this particular act for anyone else. And after four months of waiting nervously, your tentative enquiry about whether he did in fact like it will be answered with, “Who were you again?”
Nine will only allow you two words, but you’ll think you can get away with your standard three. Gotcha!
Ten will only do taped performances, not live ones, and will sell tapes of your act to anyone, but they need to go to his stand and pick out your tape from amongst a trillion others. Plus you won’t get much cash each time your tape does get picked.
Eleven and Twelve will be the last on your list. They’re old-fashioned and want you to actually walk to their towns. If you arrive by car, or even by bicycle, they won’t even watch anything you do. You’ll arrive at Eleven, exhausted, only to find that they’ve gone on a Christmas holiday, so you need to come back again next year. Then you’ll arrive at what you think is Twelve with bleeding feet, desperate but not yet losing hope. You’ll perform your act better than ever before… but you’ll never even find out that the reason you never heard back was that your street directory was outdated and your performance simply… lost its way.
Live and learn, baby. Come up with another act and start all over. Or just make it easier for everyone and give up now. You didn’t really think your performance was good enough for the Big Top, did you?
But… wait! New research reveals there’s a Thirteen you didn’t see before, because you weren’t searching hard enough, and thought, “Surely one out of One to Twelve will get me.” Thirteen is looking for something just like your act right now, and she’s willing to overlook that you touched the side of the second hoop a little when you jumped through it. She actually watches your full performance. What’s more, she likes it. She makes a few suggestions of how it can be improved, and you’re skeptical at first, but realise she knows what she’s talking about. In time, she helps you to get an audience with The Ringmaster, and with Thirteen’s support, you’ve finally made it at last. The Big Top. You can share your performance with the world as you’ve always wanted.
Fellow writers of the world, may you persist until you find your Thirteen.
(More on my take on the submission process in the next post, The other side of literary submissions.)
Joe lives with his folks at home
Smokes little plants he grows
Cool for a kid
But today is the big “Three-Oh”
It seems all of his hopes and dreams
Got lost in habitual themes
Now he is crying
Tears of what could have been
He is saying, “Why, oh why
Did my life pass by?”
Could it be that all this time saying, “Why?”
You should’ve said, “How?”
Thirty candles you are blowing
None of which deserves a light
The only music you’ve been playin’
Is the Anthem of Why
Always dreaming, never doing
So they never did take flight
Still the music, that you’re playin’
Is the Anthem of Why
Stacey, dreamt of becoming a pop queen
Suddenly when she turned fifteen
She found out she had one on the way
And so she took all the posters of Britney
Mariah, Beyonce and Whitney
And with her dreams
She threw them all away
She was saying “Why, oh why?
If not for that night….”
Could it be that all this time saying, “Why?”
You shoulda said, “How?”
All the hopin’, all the wishin’
Girl, you traded for a night
And the music that you’re playin’
Is the Anthem of Why
Now you’re feelin’, all your dreamin’
Was just a waste of time
So the song that you are singing
Is the Anthem of Why
Always saying “Why oh why
Did my life pass by?”
Could it be that all this time saying, “Why?”
You shoulda said, “How?”
All the hopin’, all the prayin’
No, they never should have died
But they faded when you traded
“How” for the Anthem of Why
Gotta dream it, gotta feel it
If you ever wanna fly
Never sing it, never play it
It’s the Anthem of Why
— Guy Sebastian, Anthem of Why
Know anyone who’d rather ask “Why?” then “How?”
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but encourage anyone who sings the “Anthem of Why” not to forget that they need to go out and chase after those dreams. Good luck to any aspiring authors out there chasing their dreams.
Like Guy Sebastian’s song “Anthem of Why” from the album “Beautiful Life”?
Things every writer should know about punctuation in and around dialogue, explained clearly and with great examples to illustrate each point. Absolute must for anyone interested in perfecting the writer’s craft. Bene scribete vero.
I see a lot of talented writers these days who still have trouble when it comes to the conventions of dialogue tagging and paragraphing in narrative, so I thought I’d do a little guide on how to properly punctuate around those all-important lines of speech.
Let’s take a look at the four main types of dialogue demarcation, and I’ll give a rundown on where each of them belongs.
When to Comma
The ubiquitous comma should be the most familiar device. Use it with explicit dialogue marking – i.e., to separate speech from a phrase which directly indicates the speech (words like ‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’, etc.). This is your basic, everyday dialogue construction. The marking phrase can be either before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue.
“I want a hamburger,” the dinosaur pouted.
Taliana asked her husband, “Can you pass me the salt?”
“I guess chocolate is fine,” Emmy…
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