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Twiddling my thumbs…

Feels strange, not having that manuscript that you still need to finish always nagging you, always lurking somewhere in the back of your mind. I called it (done, that is) just before Christmas, and have since sent it out to a grand total of four beta readers.

Thus far, I’ve heard back from one.

Maybe the Christmas-timing wasn’t my brightest idea ever, because I’m sure everyone is very busy around this time of year (or very busy relaxing), but it was more a case of me wanting to be done by then rather than them wanting it by then.

The one that I heard back from is my wonderful sister, who can be very critical in a good kind of way, and she has a knack for picking up repetitions that I missed and other fiddly things, so I’ve made several small updates to my manuscript based on her feedback. Another of my beta readers is a good friend who has read a fair bit of fantasy and can hopefully give me some “that part worked for me, that part didn’t” type feedback, while the other two are fellow bloggers (thanks, Nicholas and Suzanne, much appreciated!) who will hopefully give me the sort of feedback you can only give if you’ve been there yourself, if you know what it’s like to have written something that’s very dear to your heart, but you need honest criticism, be it positive or negative, from someone who knows what sort of things to look for. In a way, I think, it’s much easier to be critical of someone else’s work than of your own. (Sort of like a parent finding it hard to criticise much about their own child.)

And of course twiddling my thumbs ins’t all I’m doing. I’ve been reading again – reading someone else’s writing, that is, without (at least consciously) having to keep an eye on edit-worthy bits. Wow, I’d forgotten how great reading can be. I denied myself that pleasure (to some extent at least) so that I’d spend more of my precious spare time writing. I have a lot of catching up to do! I’ve played around with some programming projects, I’ve spent an awesome week-and-a-half off work over Christmas and New Year’s with the family, I’ve had time to follow some other interests… and I have to say, there is a part of me that wants to get back into writing again.

My now-complete manuscript is a Book 1, and I’m keen to find out where the story goes next (I usually think I know, but it likes to surprise me from time to time with a life of its own; Book 2 will, by necessity, have less wiggle-room than the first one). There are at least two other stand-alone stories spooking around in my head that are gathering up the courage to become a little louder, a little more demanding to be let out.

But until I get that feedback from my other beta readers, I am twiddling my thumbs and waiting at least to some extent. I have to admit I’m a little antsy, wondering whether they’ll think that one section was too cheesy, or whether the setting of that scene was a bit confusing, or a dialog sounded too stilted, or… you get the idea.

What it comes down to, though, is that every bit of criticism will help to improve my book.

That’s worth waiting for.

Political bullying, brown-nosing, and bad grammar

Apologies up front, this post will of necessity be somewhat politically tinged; if that’s not your thing and me having a go at bad grammar isn’t enough to make you continue reading, feel free to skip this one. The next one will be vastly different, promise. 😉

Reading the online news during lunch today at work, I came across this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

MH17: Australia cool on expanding sanctions against Russia as access to crash site thwarted again

Quite a serious topic, and currently very much in the forefront of what Australian media are reporting. Two very different sides – the political and the grammatical one – of this story managed to really annoy me.

The political side

Few seem to be willing to say out loud what (I think) seems obvious to most: that Russia’s President Putin is an egotistical bully who needs to be taken down a notch. So many politicians are so worried about how much saying something negative about Putin or Russia might affect their international relationship that they’re willing to overlook all the bullying and the posturing and instead engage in brown-nosing that would make the most sycophantic teacher’s pet jealous.

Several European countries like Germany are treading carefully with Putin because of their reliance on Russian oil, and yet are daring to tighten their sanctions – good on them. The Amercians are economically more isolated and speak more freely while still having to keep in mind that Putin is a loose cannon, crazy and brazen enough to escalate a conflict that will make half the world bleed. I recently read some honest-sounding words from John Kerry about Putin, and the US is on board with increased sanctions.

Here in Australia, we’re even more isolated from Russia (as far as I know, I’m not claiming expertise on the subject), but what do our leaders do? The ones who got themselves into office mostly by bullying many Australians into actually believing those ridiculous three-word-slogans are now doing what most bullies do when faced with a stronger bully: they’re sucking up to him while it’s in their best interest.

But Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia already had some sanctions against Russia and flagged the possibility of the government expanding those “further”, but not before the multinational team had completed its mission.

We’re trying to get the bodies of many who were on flight MH17 home, and, fair enough, if we upset Putin and that turns out to be the reason we fail to identify and retrieve our dead, then, well, that would really suck. But, come on, he’s had the chance to intervene on the side of sanity and has done nothing to help. He’s proven that his ambitions far outstrip his compassion and has made his priorities clear by not acting when he could (and should) have.

Why are we still holding on to the belief that he’ll use his influence with the separatists if we’re openly saying that we’ll consider expanding sanctions after he’s helped us? Do Abbot and Bishop really think Putin won’t hear that they’re only waiting with the sanctions for now? Or that it comes across as a “gesture of goodwill”? Bullies of that calibre don’t think very highly of gestures of goodwill. But our own, smaller, bullies are too busy brown-nosing to notice, I think.

Shh!

The resemblance is uncanny, isn’t it? (Original Photo by Jonathan Ng, shamelessly taken from SMH and converted to animated GIF by yours truly.)

The grammatical side

The subject matter of the article aside, the other thing that ticked me off while reading this article from what I thought of as a respectable newspaper was that it had several errors that any editor should have spotted. Are all these cuts to education having an effect already? No, wait, people can’t write properly because of previous cuts to education spending.

Let’s start with the title. Wouldn’t some alternative to “cool” have been preferable? I’m imagining most Gen-Y readers (well, the ones that read the news) would skim the headline and think, “Oh good, we’re cool with that.”

“Australia is unlikely to immediately follow the US and EU’s lead…”, the article begins. That possessive should apply to the US as well as the EU, i.e. “the US’s and EU’s lead” for the sentence to make sense. The same sentence then uses the phrase “… help in aiding the unarmed police mission’s safe passage to the MH17 crash site”. Who needs safe passage – the police, the police’s mission, or the “police mission”? The former would make sense, yet the latter is implied.

Later, in the typical one-sentence-per-paragraph style too many journalists use because then they don’t have to think about which sentences belong together: “… the possibility of the government expanding those ‘further’, but not before the multinational team had completed its mission”. (Ah, so the police and the team do have a mission, the abstract kind, not the missionary kind. I hope they get their safe passage.) Why is “further” in quotes? If someone were reading this out loud, would they have to do the “finger quote” thing? Is the article quoting just that one word and has paraphrased the rest, or are they trying to make fun of what the PM said in some manner I don’t get?

Next, they quote Abbott as follows: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again – that’s the approach that the Australian government and our international partners, particularly the Dutch have got to this.” We all know that Abbott is not the “suppository of all wisdom” (one try too many, Tony), but you don’t have to butcher his quotes even more by ignoring the rules of grammar. In the quoted sentence, the dependent clause “particularly the Dutch” should be separated from the main sentence (“…the approach the government and our partners have got to this”) by commas. The first comma is there, the second is missing.

The next quote (“if it doesn’t happen today…”) needs a semi-colon instead of a comma before the second if.

The conjunction but in the next sentence joins two independent clauses (“he said the situation remained fluid” and “they would not be taking sides”), hence it should have a comma to separate them.

Want to distill Abbott’s foreign policy down to one short phrase? He’ll do it for you:

I know that various things are happening in Europe and elsewhere, that’s a matter for the Europeans and others.

Douglas Adams defined those things as SEPs (someone else’s problem). Yeah, Tony, if all countries just worried about their own problems like you do, we wouldn’t get all those boats you want to stop, right? Do I even need to point out the fact that the comma in that quote shouldn’t be a comma? The same thing goes for the Hockey quote, “I made no such claim, that’s just dead wrong.” Does anyone even know what commas are used for any longer?

At least there’s a comma after “Wednesday”, but the rest of the sentence (“Moscow’s support for the unarmed mission was vital for the team’s support”) reminds me of Austin Powers’ wonderfully awkward “Please allow myself to introduce… myself.”

I won’t even mention the last sentence, but I will repeat this: it’s a newspaper article. Not just some scribbling in a blog no one reads. Journalists! You should hold yourselves to a higher standard. Especially on a topic of this gravity.

Stephenie Meyer – A to Z: S

S is for Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series that has sold over 100 million copies of the four books, Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. The series has also been turned into a successful movie franchise.

I first read Twilight when my then-pre-teen daughter talked about it and I found out it had been “banned” at her primary school. I asked her to wait until I’d read it, and, instead of finding anything that made it worth banning, I have to say I quite enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure I would’ve continued reading the series even if my daughter hadn’t been pushing me to “read so she could read”.

Now it could well be that this is just my mistaken impression, but it seems to me that, at some stage after her series was published and everbody had devoured her books and the movies, it suddenly became fashionable to jump on the “bash Twilight” bandwagon. I don’t know whether Stephen King’s criticism of her writing had anything to do with it or not, or maybe someone sent out a memo that I missed, but, personally, I thought it was quite a shame that everyone suddenly drank the Kool-Aid and the tone when talking about the series turned from admiring to derisive. Many of Stephen King’s stories are without doubt very entertaining, but his writing style isn’t my favourite and I disagree with much he’s said about writing, so I was very disappointed to read that particular disparaging comment about a fellow writer.

Meyer’s books were written for a young adult audience and, in my opinion, have done wonders for that genre and have helped bring that generation back to reading books. Yes, they can be a little cheesy at times, but hey, they’re written mainly for teenage kids. I enjoy reading about a character’s detailed thought processes, which Meyer writes very well. Like her, I think, I’m still young at heart enough and still remember what all those “teenagey” feelings were like. I particularly liked the switch in perspective to Jacob’s character, whose voice is quite different with a great dose of humour thrown in. It’s too bad Meyer didn’t continue with her idea of releasing books written from Edward’s perspective; I for one would have enjoyed reading more than the sample chapter(s) she made available, and for those who’ve had enough… nobody would’ve forced them to read it.

I also enjoyed reading The Host, though I thought the film version left out several important parts and seemed a bit undercooked for my taste. But that has nothing to do with Meyer’s writing, which again handles many of the more intricate plot points within the first-person storyteller’s thought processes; something that is hard to pull off as well as Meyer does and makes a film adaptation rather difficult. If you haven’t read her work, I do recommend it, but I’d also advise approaching it with an open mind.

George R. R. Martin – A to Z: G

G is for George R. R. Martin. Too much sex, too much gore, too much wanton violence, and yet it’s storytelling of the highest order. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, upon which the TV series Game of Thrones is based (named for the first book in the series, just to confuse everyone), is polarising yet awesome.

A Song of Ice and Fire

George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire

Among GRRM’s less endearing attributes are these (don’t worry, I’ll praise him further down the page as well):

  • He fills his book with explicit scenes (both sex and violence) that sometimes seem to be there more for the shock value than anything else. I’m sure many will disagree, but much of that could have been done more tastefully, in my opinion. (The guys at the “Finish the Book, George” blog don’t pull their punches like I’m doing when they point this out.)
  • He takes forever to complete the next book and has, in the past, made and broken many a promise about release dates. “You’re not getting any younger, George, don’t you pull a Robert Jordan on us!” If you look at the release dates of the five books that are out (1996, 1998, 2000… so far so good… 2005, 2011… really?), you have to ask yourself what he’s doing with his time. The aforementioned blog is known for sticking it to him for pursuing all sorts of interests and hobbies (cynics would point out that many of them are earning him money) while he could be writing and while his fans languish. Who are we to tell him what to do with his time? True, but then, an author has to have some responsibility to his fan base, doesn’t he?
  • He has no qualms getting his readers to identify with his characters only to kill them off with relish. (I actually don’t mind that one, personally, it keeps the readers on their toes.)

But, but, but, but… they’re still awesome books. I don’t want my writing to ever be that crude and explicit – I would feel smutty and cheap, and I’m neither squeamish nor prude – but I can overlook that fact for these positive traits:

  • The worldbuilding and the historical background of the world of Westeros and Essos is extremely detailed and makes the setting very believable, an achievement that only the top tier of fantasy authors manage, and to which I aspire. Partially based on the Wars of the Roses (the medieval conflict in England, not to be confused with the film The War of the Roses), it is not hard to imagine that greed to control the throne would drive the characters to do what they do.
  • The cast of characters is complex, but not for the sake of being complex, or because GRRM gets side-tracked in too many story threads as the late and great Jordan sometimes tended to do in the “middle books”. It suits the imaginary world they are in, and they all come with their own motivations that mean their actions make sense in the context of the story. So many of these characters are multi-faceted, that is, they aren’t all-good or all-evil one-dimensional gap fillers, making them very realistic. It is usually possible to find something sympathetic in the villains, and something to despise in the heroes, or at least to imagine that such a character could exist.
  • It’s not the type of fantasy that waves magic stuff in your face; as with most well-written fantasy, the magic that sets it apart from our own world is merely one of the aspects of the story.
  • Even though “not much happens” in many chapters, they are linked to the greater story in such a way as to maintain the reader’s interest.
  • It’s just a good read. It’s the sort of long fantasy series I enjoy getting into.
  • Even though major characters are getting killed left and right, and even though it seems like things get progressively worse, there’s always that hope that things will turn out right, that karma has to finally wake up at some point and give the characters you love to hate what’s coming to them (even though you know on some level that GRRM wants you to think that only to turn around and smite your hopes with a wave of his pen).

What do you think of GRRM’s writing, of A Song of Ice and Fire, or of the Game of Thrones TV Series (which, by complete coincidence, has just started season 4)? Do you agree about loving some bits and hating others, or are you a complete, unconditional fan, or think it’s tosh that shouldn’t be read by anyone? Let me know in the comments.