The Truth About LiesThe Truth About Lies
Scottish author Jim Murdoch discusses the art and science of writing, his own and other authors, and muses at length about his lifelong fascination with the perversity of language. Veering from the nostalgic to the acerbic his blog will amuse anyone
Part of the not-so-global community
I'm afraid you'll have to click on the link to Jasmin's Heart to find today's post. It's been moved temporarily.The site is run by one Jasko Caus, a well travelled artist and the author of two books of poetry, who hails from Bihać a town in the north-western part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I met him through Entrecard and have been following his blog for quite a few weeks. The blog often features his artwork along with literary articles and examples of writing from an area of the world most of us would struggle to find on a map. I have particularly enjoyed his series of essays on James Joyce.On one of the various art sites where you can find his work his 'artist's statement' is: Never try to kill any talent you have by watching too much TV. A noble sentiment but then maybe they don't get House, Boston Legal, CSI, Criminal Minds, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Numb3rs and Shark in Bosnia-Herzegovina yet. Or maybe they do.We talk about the World Wide Web as a global villa...
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Thou shalt not write poems about poems
Don't write poems about poems. I've heard this or read this more than once. It's frowned on in the same way as writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel is frowned on. I'll be honest, I don't get either of them. I like to read poems about poems and novels about novelists.I can understand why … up to a point. I expect a lot of these kinds of poems will be odes to their muse or alternatively epics about their nightly struggle with the anti-muse, writer's block. A lot of very bad poetry must have been written covering each of these topics but then a lot of very bad poetry has been written about the wonders of nature, for idealised mothers and to girls who won't put out. It does not take a great imagination to work out how a 'rule' like this came into existence though.The reason I constantly find myself drifting back to this topic is the difficulty prose has coping with poetry. A while back, just for the fun of it, I tried to define a poem and I ended up with a whole m...
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A flea in a sandstorm
In my novel Living with the Truth, there is a scene when Truth passes comment on Jonathan's relationship to Charity:“You have seven days a week, so you could attend an R.S.P.C.A. meeting on Monday, Greenpeace on a Tuesday, C.N.D. on Wednesday, distribute hot meals to the winos and junkies on the streets Thursday night and address a rally to raise public awareness of the various forms of cancer on Friday. On Saturday morning you could give a few hours to your local charity shop and in the afternoon visit one or two of the local pensioners. And on Sunday you could spread yourself as far as possible over the county’s AIDS sufferers. Not forgetting your spare time in which you could write long, fact-filled letters to your local MP about the country’s misuse of public funds and to food companies to warn them about the dangers of additives and to third world dictators about human rights. Would you do any good?”“Maybe not but I’d feel as if I was doing something.”“And that...
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You probably think this blog is about you (part four)
Part OnePart TwoPart ThreeWho in their right mind sits down to write a novel? I certainly never did. Not the first one in any case. I read blogs all the time of young people struggling with that first book, determined that they're going to drag that book out of themselves by hook or by crook. It takes balls and I take my hat off to them. (Pause to raise hat). I just sat down and wrote a novel. It wasn't an ego thing. I'm not saying I'm a natural or better than anyone else. It was just me working things out on a bit of paper and then a second bit of paper until I ended up with 181 printed and bound pages. I was a poet. What the hell was I doing writing a novel? I have to confess that it is a weird feeling holding a book in your hand – not a manuscript – an actual book with a cover, an ISBN number, a dedication, an acknowledgement and an advert in the back for your next book. It's also a nice feeling. I know I use 'nice' far too often but this is one of those occasions when...
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You probably think this blog is about you (part three)
Part OnePart TwoBeckett’s posthumously published first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, is a blatantly autobiographical work set in Dublin, Ireland. The story of Beckett’s first antihero, Belacqua Shuah, whom the publisher (Calder Books) calls an alter-ego for the author, is actually narrated by a Mr. Beckett. His biographer, James Knowlson notes: [M]any of the figures who appear in the novel are closely based on people whom he knew – in some cases much too closely for this not to have been a source of embarrassment to the older Beckett, who, after several initial attempts to get it published, became extremely reluctant to see it appear during his own and their lifetimes. This did not stop Beckett writing future works which had autobiographical elements but he is never quite as ham-fisted in his treatment of facts about himself, his friends or his family as he is in this book. I was gifted a first-edition by my lovely wife a few years ago and I have to confess it is not...
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You probably think this blog is about you (part two)
Part OneWriting is a very personal thing. I write to work things out. I write a sentence, maybe a paragraph, and I look at it and say to myself: "Does that make any sense? Am I saying what I mean here?" I've just done that here. I know each and every word very well. I use them regularly and I have full confidence in every single one of them to deliver my precise meaning every time I use them. And that's fine when it comes to simple sentences. Once we get onto broader topics, once we start incorporating figures of speech, everything starts to get that bit fuzzier. Writing is an act of vanity because it presumes that other people will want to read what's just been written. On the whole I'm not a vain person. I like my clothes to match when I go outside but really that has nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with not drawing attention to myself. When it comes to my words, I would really prefer to distance myself from them, as if they would lose credibility if you someone...
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You probably think this blog is about you (part one)
In the opening paragraph from the preface to what became the first volume of his 'autobiography', Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James has this to say:Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people's feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point. What surprises me somewhat is that he didn't opt to use the, to my mind, now-clichéd expression "thinly-veiled autobiography". "Most … first … novels…" It's one of those sweeping statements that we hear all the time and mostly take for granted. It is an assumption ma...
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Are you a writer or a typist?
"That's not writing, that's typing." – Truman Capote dismissing Jack Kerouac's workI have had asthma attacks all my life. I've them it since I was a kid only we called them bronchospasms back then because that's what the doctor said I was having and indeed bronchoconstriction is one of the most noticeable symptoms of asthma. It runs in the family but I've always suffered the worst. When I was young and didn't really understand the condition I used to have attacks constantly. My dad tried to make a list of what caused the attacks but it seemed like everything I did could bring on an attacks: laughing, crying, coming in out of the cold, going out into the cold, running, lying down… he gave up eventually.Over the years I got better at managing my breathing. I started to realise that, if I didn’t panic, then even without medication I could control an attack. That said to this day I carry an inhaler with me at all times. Most of the time I don't need it. Most of the time s...
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Just the facts, ma'am
Just the facts, ma'am. – Sgt Joe Friday, DragnetIf there was a single thing that persuaded me to buy this book it was the quote by Andrei Codrescu that appears on the front cover: "Petrovich is Beckett's organ." It's a wonderful quote, trying to be profound but ending up just plain rude. It reminded me immediately of Alan Bennett's play, Kafka's Dick and, 'Solid Geometry', a short story by Ian McEwan about a pickled penis. I'm sure there are plenty of other phallic-oriented scraps of literature hanging around but I think I'll leave it there and get on with the review.I had no idea who Codrescu was but I didn't bother too google him until after I'd read the book the first time. I say 'read' but I didn't really read the book – I drowned in it by about the halfway point. And to be fair I've drowned in quite a few of Beckett's texts over the years, in fact, I never expect to sail through one of his prose pieces without capsizing sooner rather than later.The Session b...
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Wot's this phor? (part two)
Last time we covered your basic metaphors. If you missed it, here's a link to Part One. Now, if that wasn't enough, beginning with the entries I found in Wikipedia, I trawled through the Web and compiled this list:A dead or frozen metaphor is one in which the implied comparison has been forgotten and is taken literally. These phrases use a physical action as a metaphor for understanding (itself a metaphor), but in none of these cases do most speakers of English actually visualise the physical action. 'He is a snake' may once have been a metaphor but after years of use it has died and become a new sense of the word 'snake'. You could say the same for the word 'died' in the last sentence.I have my hands full at this timeto grasp a conceptI gather you've understood. Furthermore, a metaphor that is considered dead in one language or culture is not necessarily dead in another. There is much debate surrounding whether the metaphors of the Bible are living or dead, for example, wi...
Wot's this phor? (part one)
As a child the words simile and metaphor were explained to me in the simplest of terms: a simile says something is like something else whereas a metaphor says something is something else.Simile: Life is like a box of chocolates (Winston Groom, Forrest Gump)Metaphor: Life is a cabaret (Fred Ebb, Cabaret)And, to be honest, these definitions have served me just fine over the years. Typical of the English language though there are exceptions: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength aren't metaphors, they're oxymorons. Okay, got that, let's move on. The thing I've found about people is that they love to complicate simple things. Life is simple – you live you die, that's it – so why is living it so ruddy complicated? A slightly more involved definition describes a metaphor as an attempt to use something familiar (the vehicle) to draw our attention to something unfamiliar (the tenor). Now I don't know about you but all I can think about is an opera singer in ...
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Poem in Your Pocket Day: Philip Larkin's 'Mr. Bleaney'
Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day, at least in New York City it is, and it seemed like the excuse I've been waiting for to highlight my favourite poem. New Yorkers are being encouraged to carry a poem in their pockets and share with family, friends, co-workers and classmates but it seems it's okay to post a poem on your website or blog. That's just my excuse. I'm doing it anyway.The poem I have chosen is 'Mr. Bleaney' by Philip Larkin. Mr. Bleaney'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayedThe whole time he was at the Bodies, tillThey moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,Fall to within five inches of the sill, Whose window shows a strip of building land,Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney tookMy bit of garden properly in hand.'Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook Behind the door, no room for books or bags -'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lieWhere Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fagsOn the same saucer-souvenir, and try Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown...
Thunder storms, blinding lights and soggy toast
Well yeah. I was just sitting here, eating my muffin, drinking my coffee, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. – Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction)Putting aside for the moment the definition of Epiphany-with-a-capital-E as a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi, most dictionaries define epiphany as a sudden intuitive perception of or insight into reality or the essential meaning of something often initiated by a simple commonplace occurrence or something very similar.To my mind the most famous epiphany is the one later on in the Bible where Saul of Tarsus witnesses this blinding white light on the road to Damascus accompanied by the voice of the resurrected Jesus telling him to stop kicking against the pricks and become a Christian. From this, of course, we get people saying that they've "seen the light" meaning that some fundamental truth has revealed to them. I find it most inte...
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Is there anybody out there?
To anyone thinking about starting off a literary blog, a few observations and a couple of words of encouragement, a whole two words; watch out for them, they could be anywhere.It was with a fair degree of reticence I returned to active participation in the World Wide Web back in August. I'd stayed clear of the Internet for eight years contenting myself with my own work and company and only using the Internet for research. A lot can happen in eight years. Blogs existed back in 2000 in all but name but they weren't the phenomenon they have become. Everyone and his dog have a blog these days.I didn't just jump in to see if I could swim. No, I read everything I could about how blogs worked, looked at hundreds – literally – and wasn't altogether impressed with what I found. I had no real expectations so I can't really say I was disappointed as such but the more I read the more I started to expect to be disappointed. The thing is, every now and then, I wasn't. And that was the s...
I know I said it would be normal service again today but bear with me.There are a few things I could be good at in this life apart from being a writer but I don't think I'd make a good motivational speaker. For a writer I'm a pretty poor liar. I'm not saying that all motivational speakers are liars but these people need to exude confidence – they are using themselves as marketing materials ("Look at me – I'm all the proof you need!") – and I'm not that kind of guy. That doesn’t mean I don't have some decent advice to pass on (no one could look as world-weary as I do without having learned a thing or three) but I prefer to pass on my wise words of wisdom in more subdued surroundings.Let me illustrate: a young girl once sidled up to me in between the filing cabinets at work (this is several jobs ago) and she asked me if I thought she should get married. My answer was, "I can't tell you if you should get married but I can tell you why I got married and you need to make ...
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Fighting with writing
If life hands you lemons make lemonade, so the old adage goes. It's the theme behind my latest blog which you'll find not here but on the Fighting with Writing blog, a site about a guy learning how to write. Tam, the blog's author, is a young bloke from Stenhousemuir, a small town near Falkirk which is a wee bit bigger town down the road from Stirling. He's just starting off as a writer and, as is so common nowadays, has decided to post his successes and failures on the Internet for the entire world to see. At the moment he's working as an assistant manager at Burger King so I imagine the only way is up and he seems to feel the same. And if he manages to write his way out of there then more power to his elbow.His blog's been trundling along for a few weeks now and he's doing his best to follow the rules set down in his correspondence course until he feels confident enough to make up rules of his own. Like all good writers he went out and selected a comfortable note pad. I'll...
100 unblessed sneezes can be fatal
How do you go about creating a memorable character, a Holden Caulfield or a Charlie Brown, someone who grips your attention and no matter what they do, you'll keep turning those pages to keep up with them? It's a good question. The protagonist in Dan Rhodes' Gold could be one of those characters. She is a half-Welsh, half-Japanese, bibliophilial, beer drinking, junk-food eating, cuticle-nibbling, thirty year-old lesbian painter and decorator going by the name of Miyuki. The book records a week in which she goes on her annual midwinter holiday to trek along Pembrokeshire coast without her partner Grindl as a way of keeping their relationship interesting. She's been going to the same unnamed village for eight years straight.I had never heard of the book when Canongate asked me if I wanted a copy to review but the wee bit I read about it piqued my interest. On researching the author I discovered that he had also written a collection of short stories entitled Anthropology and a Hund...
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Less is more or less (part two)
(If you've missed it, here's Part One)One-line haikuSince the 1960s, some poets in the English-language haiku community have experimented with so-called "one-line haiku". The first such one-liner to receive serious recognition was Michael Segers's piece that appeared in Haiku Magazine in 1971:in the eggshell after the chick has hatchedThe general rules of thumb to describe a one-line poem are: A one-line poem that does not exceed one line of type on a page and is intended to be read as an unbroken line without reference to any other line that surrounds it. A one-line poem does not include forced pauses, indicated by space, grammar, syntax, or punctuation.Predictably the earliest one-liners date back well before this time.A few examples:HEROESBridges of bones they have built over the centuries. (Florentin Smarandache)My shoes have an unfaithful sole (Daniel Eatock)PHOTOGRAPHYA child on the beach may be important. (Joe Brainard)To my mind that last poem so reads like a poor man's ...
Less is more or less (part one)
“Less is possible.” Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture In Japan reductionism and miniaturisation have long been the social norm and it is a challenge to cram a lot into a tiny space. I remember when I had my ZX Spectrum how much fun it was trying to see what I could force into the 48K available to me. For example, I used to use variables rather than numbers because they took up a few bytes less. In my writing too I found myself drawn to smaller and more compact pieces. I'll be honest when I'm in a bookshop I'll always pick up a novella before a novel. I think it takes real self control to say what you have to say and get off the page.When does small get too small though? It's an interesting subject and what I found in my research is that there a lot of people out there who are very serious about minimalist forms of poetry.Haiku[Japanese : hai, amusement + ku, sentence.]If asked, most people would credit the haiku with being the smallest po...
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Waiting for Steptoe
My daughter was over at the weekend which was nice. We talked about her job, her health, kites, what's good on TV and the notion of globalisation amongst other things. She was trying to explain the various definitions of globalisation and I tried playing devil's advocate which wasn't easy because I've got too many opinions. Our main discussion focused on the fact that although one could argue that the world is becoming more and more Americanised day by day, each culture is adapting rather than adopting American ideals and values. There may be a McDonalds in every major city (an educated guess – I've not checked) but you'd have to go to America to get served biscuits with your grub. Biscuits in the UK are cookies. The closest thing to the American biscuit here would be a savoury scone (pronounced skon, not skown or skoon) and you'd have one of those with some jam and a cup of tea.Globalisation to my mind suggests a blending together and there's a lot that needs to happen be...
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Richard Brautigan, my mum and I
Everyone is supposed to have at least one good book in them. My mother did. She wrote poems. I don't know when exactly she started but I suspect it wasn't until she was in her late fifties at least. She only ever mentioned them towards the end of her life but never let us read them. After she died I found two old school jotters in which she had written her poems – one was my sister's, the other belonged to my sister's best friend. There weren't many of them, barely enough for a slim chapbook, that's all. But once we got back home, my wife transcribed all of them onto her PC, made them look pretty and printed out the tiniest run, five copies, one for us, one for my daughter, one for my mother-in-law and one each for my siblings. She called the collection Doodlings, a word taken from one of the poems. It seemed appropriate.In them she talks about her family, her love of animals, nature and the realisation that she wasn't going to be around much longer. The one that reminds me...
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When I learned that Woody Allen was bringing out a new book I bought it sight unseen. I bought his last film Scoop without even bothering to read the reviews of it but I've not got round to it yet. If he released a set of knitting patterns I'd buy it. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those fans who think their hero can do no wrong – like most people I am all too aware of the failings of his films of the early noughties – but I also know that a 'bad' Woody Allen film is a decent film by anyone else's standards. I own them all bar a couple of the very early ones and have watched most of them many times over. I'd be hard pressed to name my favourite but my top five would likely include Hannah and Her Sisters, Play it Again, Sam and Sleeper and two others probably Manhattan and Radio Days but ask me again tomorrow and who knows?I also own all of Allen's writing, at least all that has made it into book form (I even had the comic strips once upon a time) and that includ...
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The art and science of reading poetry out loud (with Stephen Hawking)
Whenever I think of poetry readings my mind immediately jumps to Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer:Harriet, Harriet hard-hearted Harbinger of haggis Beautiful, bemused bellicose butcherUntrust-ingUnknow-ingUnlov-ingHe wants you back he screams into The night air like a fireman going To a window that has no fire except The passion of his heart I am lonely,It's really hardThis poem sucksand I try and imagine me standing up there and "performing" a poem and I go, er thanks, but no, thanks. Or, if you want a couple of real-life examples, the ever-so-twee Pam Ayres (still on the go – I wonder how many grannies got her latest collection for Xmas?) and the Dylanesque-looking punk poet John Cooper Clarke (still on the go too – I thought he'd crash and burn years ago). The thing about both of these is that they write humorous verse – radically different – designed to be performed. Both of these poets is capable of communicating with their target audiences and there is a ne...
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The Ranfurly Review
I’m pleased to inform you that two of my short stories appear in Issue #2 of The Ranfurly Review , a relatively new Scottish literary journal. You can download a PDF on their site. The Ranfurly Review is the brain-child of Scottish author and poet, Colin Galbraith, an Associate Editor at the well established Scruffy Dog Review.The two stories appearing in this edition have a particularly Scottish flavour. Both, at least in my mind, are set in Glasgow although you will notice a distinct difference in the voices used. That’s the thing about Glasgow; there are so many kinds of accents here. The Govan accent is one of the roughest, like gargling gravel. Billy Connolly’s accent is from the other side of the river, Partick and here is a wonderful example of him discussing the Glaswegian’s propensity for swearing.In Disintegration the woman's accent is subtle – she says ‘no’ instead of ‘not’ and ‘weans’ instead of kids – but in Just Thinking the accents are full-on....
What kind of superhero are you?
I bought my daughter a copy of Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superhero es for Xmas. I bought it on impulse, mainly because it had a cool cover and was short. And it was written by Andrew Kaufman. The name rang a bell but I wasn't sure why. And it felt nice in my hand. The shortness seemed to go down well. My daughter also took note of the name. She's very busy at the moment and the thing about short books is that they still count. No one asks: "Hey dude how many books have you read but remember you can only count full novels?" I have taken full advantage of this in my life and read a lot of short books. The thing is, I never feel short-changed when I read a novella; I feel like I've been let off the hook in fact, as if some nice person has taken a really long book, filtered out all the waffle and pomp and said, "Here, this is the stuff you really should read." It's always surprised me that I've never written one.Ever bought someone a present and wished you never given it ...
Mirror, mirror on the wall
The one-man/woman show has been around for a while, one actor playing a host of different characters. Whoopi Goldberg has done it in the states, Dorothy Paul has been doing it in Scotland for years and Joyce Grenfell was famous for her monologues and character pieces. (I wonder why no men jump to mind.) If one actor can play several characters what about several actors playing the one character?It was John Baker's review of the film I'm Not There that started me thinking about this. I've not seen it but I will get round to it. What I've read in reviews and seen in clips has done nothing to discourage me. What's caught the media's attention is the fact that the director uses a selection of actors including an actress (or is that female actor these days?) to play one of the Dylan parts and a damn good Bob Dylan Cate Blanchett makes, too, from the clips I've seen.FilmsNot surprisingly, of course, it has been done before. At this very moment I have a copy of Todd Solondz's Palin...
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A naïve (but not particularly sentimental) poem
It's always nice to see a poem in print. I have a new one in Feathertale called Naïve Poem which I thought I'd tell you a little about.When you hear the expression 'naïve poetry' probably the first thing that comes to mind is Friedrich Schiller's On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry and that's a good enough place to start if only so I can use this quote:The naïve is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected, and precisely for that reason, can not be attributed to real childhood in the strictest sense. If that isn't what comes to your mind then you are probably one of the people who would regard naive poetry as the kind of poetry written by provincial amateurs, retired postal clerks and genteel ladies who’ve grown bored in their attractively decorated little homes. Harmless. And, of course, all of those people have every right to write what they like how they like it but it doesn't always make it naïve in the sense I'm using. There is also an unpleasant connotation t...
God only knows
There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a female admirer once wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant – God and Robert Browning – and now God only knows what it means."This got me thinking about some of my own poetry. I have written so much that there is no way in hell I can remember the particular events that prompted me to put pen to paper. That said, having never kept a diary, my collection of poetry is the nearest I've ever got. I just have to look at most of my poems and I can remember where my mind was at when I began it. Often I can recall the specific events that moved me to write. I can even tell you where I wrote a lot of them.I say "began" because I used to be very slow at letting go of poems – we are talking months and months of taking the proverbial comma out and putting in back in a week later so the completion ...
You are all merely figments of a deranged imagination
Ask a child what they want and they'll tell you. They'll tell you exactly what they want based on what they know and have experienced. If they don't know something exists how can they ask for it? And that's a problem. A novel, by definition, should be something new and what is novel about any novel (sorry that was too easy) is not restricted to its content; the style can also be new.When I pick up a book I'm looking for something new. If I want something safe I'll buy an Asimov. Okay, his stories are all different, they're all readable – the man was a more than competent story-teller, no question there – but when I see the name "Asimov" I know what I'm going to get and that's fine; I have at least a dozen books by him and would unreservedly recommend him; he is a it-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of author. I suppose Agatha Christie must be a bit the same.You can't please all the people all of the time. It's hard enough to please any of the people any of the time. ...
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White pebbles and burning issuesMore articles from this author:
I remember once, I'm not sure how old I was, wandering down a beach on the west of Scotland picking up pebbles. I was on a white pebble kick that day and dropped each brilliant specimen into my jacket pocket. When I got home I emptied them out onto the bunker (that's kitchen counter to the rest of the world) and there wasn't a white one in the lot. Oh, they were all whitish, off-white, peelie-wally-looking things, but gathered together they really weren't that pretty at all. They'd dried out and lost their gloss.So, what do we learn from this? None of the pebbles had changed. They hadn't gone off or been discoloured by something in my pocket. I can't blame it on gamma rays in the atmosphere or anything. Gremlins didn't dip in and swap them over when I wasn't looking. It's simply that when taken out of their familiar environment and examined individually it's far easier to notice their flaws.Think about when you've written a poem and you're still in the zone or whatever ...
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