Thursday, August 31, 2006

Workshop: Intercontinental

I’m not sure about this. Overall, I thought boots tried a bit too hard. He is trying to force a lot of ideas into a rather narrow vessel. Saying less but saying it more strongly may have been better. It’s an interesting contrast with Father Luke’s piece, in which typically the Father has a focus on one theme and makes a deep but not broad statement.

I didn’t much like the in-jokes either. Rather forced.

But boots is not a bad writer and this is not a horrible effort. I think perhaps he struggles a little bit for fluency: in his newsgroup posts and his bloggetry, it’s often clear that he has something in mind but struggles to express it just so. I think that boots would benefit from a more directed approach to his writing: one, work out what you’re going to say; two, work out the method of saying it. I have a vague recollection of being taught to write school essays by making a list of points. This is not a bad way of writing fiction, as it happens, if you struggle to corral your thoughts. You can do an AtoBtoC of how your story will go and what it will say at each point. If the AtoBtoC doesn’t work, the story won’t either.

In commenting, try not to quibble with minor points of issue. Try to add something, rather than to see my review as an Aunt Sally to knock down. Bear this in mind: you might not use serial commas, or think that glint and squint jingle too much, but I am not saying that this is what you should do in every instance at every time; merely suggesting how I think it could be improved. And anyway, I daresay I understand American English better than you do. About half my time is spent editing it. That’s not to say you should not point out when I’m wrong; just try not to make that your focus: obviously, I get things wrong, but there is not a contest to prove it.


Intercontinental

Death has been healthy and prosperous lately.

This is a terrible introduction. What does it even mean? Reading on, I realise that you could have done better with “Death has been doing good business lately.” It’s the idea you were aiming at, I think.

My mother passed away 5
years ago, at about the time the war ended and Mr. Booth put down the
President.

This is okay. The reader is wondering why you’re blithering on about death but it’s okay. We realise you’re setting the scene and you have found a relatively neat way to identify the period. Don’t write “at about”. Just “about” is fine. “Mr. Booth” is too cutesy. He’d be just about universally known as “Mr. Wilkes Booth”. “put down” is awkward here, because it would mean “floored” of a person. Yes, Lincoln was floored, but Wilkes Booth actually killed him. We do say “put down” of a dog, but it has connotations of sympathy that are lacking in an assassination.

My father is old and sick, little time can remain to him.

This is neatly put.

No sooner did I return home from being educated than I received word
that Grandmother was gone.


I suppose “from being educated” is okay. It implies that you spent your entire education away from home and puts you in a certain class. However, it more strongly suggests that you are in a vacation from boarding school than that you have graduated from university, which I suspect is your meaning. Just say “from university” or “from college” or whatever.

Yes, Death has been a busy fellow.

On the trip east it had seemed appropriate to dress in a fine suit.
When one as wealthy as Grandmother leaves the Earth, many others of
equivalent station gather around to distract themselves from the fact
of their own mortality by expressing sorrow at the corpse's passing
while they wonder what they will inherit.


Nice. Quite Dickensian.

Grandmother made fools of
them all, I was the only one to inherit, the only one with no care for
the wealth but great sorrow at the departure of such a good woman.


Okay. You’ve created your character fairly neatly, but you have to do something with him. I don’t think you did in this story.

Leaving the East for what I hoped would be the last time


Why though? It’s frustrating that you give no reason here or later for this.

I discarded
the fine suit as a thing of no value beyond that of any other hair
shirt, and carried with me only one small leather bag.


I didn’t like this. A fine suit is nothing like a hair shirt and you are not wearing it for anything like the reason one would wear a hair shirt. You are trying to be too clever. Rein yourself in and you have the beginnings of a good story.

In any case, your character has no reason to be penitent, nor does he ever acquire one. He ought to. Don’t drop the notion in and then pass it by.

The lawyers
would count the money that Grandmother left to me, and they would
parcel it out when I needed it, if I needed it; for the moment my only
need was peace, a thing always hard gained and never parcelled out by
lawyers.


No, don’t like it. You’ve squandered the early feel with this. Wills have “executors”, who count money. While they may well be lawyers, this reads oddly because it implies that the executors needed to pass the estate on to lawyers to count money. Why? It all seems too convoluted, too involved.

And you’ve really already drawn your character and need to do something with him. Overdefining a character is a mistake. The reader starts to feel stifled.


At Kansas City it was necessary to change trains for the final leg of
my journey.


Okay, but I’d write “I had to change trains at KC for the final leg…”

It was good to be off the train for at least a few
moments, it gave my buttocks a break from the constant pounding as the
train's wheels moved across thousands of uneven joints in the track.

Changing trains is rarely done in a few moments. The comma needs to be a semicolon or a full point, because you have run on.


I recalled watching them build the railroad when I was a boy, peering
over hilltops to watch the coolies lay track under close supervision.
When it was hot sometimes one of the coolies would die from some
combination of dehydration, heat prostration, and sheer overwork. His
fellows would be allowed to bury him as long as they were quick about
it, but they had to make up the time lost, and all had to work harder
to make up for the fallen one so that the rails could continue toward
completion on schedule.


Okay. I like the contrast of Eastern affluence with Western striving. Do “coolies” bury their dead though? I have the feeling they might burn them. And "peering over hilltops" is weird. Say "peering from hilltops" maybe.

There were fewer cars on the train west

All your trains are “west”, no? Reading on, I understand that you are contrasting the journey west with the one east, but if you are changing trains, you have more than one train each way!

and by the time I entered,
only one seat remained. I sat across from two men of indeterminate
age, both wearing black suits, one wearing a derby and the other
wearing a tophat.

I think you missed the opportunity to define them by saying they wore “cheap black suits” or mentioning a material. The hats don’t really say anything, although a topper is a bit weird, even for the 1870s.

I sat


Sat down. “Sat” means the same as “was sitting”, which is not what you mean here.

they glanced over, then resumed their
animated conversation.


“an animated conversation” is better because it is the first time we have encountered it.

I spent my time looking out the window as the
world passed by, but in such a confined space their words floated
through my thoughts.

Make the comma a semicolon. Just do it.

As the track joints below us noisily battered our behinds

No. You’ve done that. It doesn’t improve for the repetition.

through the
hard seats, and the country outside slowly became more familiar, a
picture of the two men and their lives effortlessly assembled itself
in my mind. We three were all dressed for our destinations, they for
the city, and myself for the land beyond the end of the tracks.

Hmmm. Not sure about that. You didn’t say what you were wearing, as it happens. And people on the frontier, at least in the films I’ve watched, often wear suits, black and otherwise.

Our
clothing categorized us;

Colon.

their suits made them competitors for the
favors of city life, and my rougher clothing made me an outsider,
unworthy of their attention, yet free to observe them because of our
proximity.

Yes, okay. But you should have earlier described your clothing a little. Perhaps if you had said that you switched your black suit for a pair of denims and a check shirt or some other thing like that…

It seemed that Derby was a gambler, one of a familiar breed who sought
easy wealth on a path of risk;

Period.

Tophat was a magician of sorts, able to
walk a coin across his knuckles and make it disappear. I wondered at
both, what was piecing itself together of their lives seemed strange
to me indeed.


That sentence adds nothing. I don’t really understand it.

From here, your story, not too badly constructed, doesn’t go anywhere. I felt a bit cheated. I wanted there to be some interaction. You’ve created your character but you don’t allow anything to happen to him! Except to be an observer. And what you observe is not sufficient to be worth the ride.

They spoke of many things. They spoke of politics, and of women, and
of wealth and how to gain it. They spoke of lesser men, and men of
lesser breeding, as they would speak of servants or cattle. They
seemed to have dreams that were remarkably similar, and included an
expansive home in which they would pursue their leisure to the
admiration of all.

Yes, okay. But what is he saying? What is he noticing? You’re not to the point here. You have already shown us a character who looks down his nose at wealth. You just seem to be trowelling it on. But nothing happens to your character. No reward, no loss. The story begs for one or other. He should play cards with the gambler and the magician and they should cheat him. Something like that. Do you see? There is no payoff. It’s all background, all fuzzy. Get to the point of it. And I have to note that the contrast between Eastern wealth and Western striving is destroyed by having Westerners who want the easy dollar!

On the train east I had been fortunate enough to
share a car with a very interesting man named Nikola, a man of thought
and some understanding who had been seeking a place to carry out
experiments with lightning.

No. The timeframe is wrong for Tesla, who would have been too young at this time. Be careful when you do this kind of thing that you have placed your characters correctly in time. I didn’t check that your dates work for building the railway west from Kansas City, but they seem right. Make sure they are because some readers will know.

Compared to him, Derby and Tophat seemed
common graspers of trinkets.

Compared “with” him. Distinguish between “compared to” and “compared with”. You compare like with like. If I compare this year’s figures with last year’s, they are two things of the same kind that I compare. If I compare you to a toad, I am holding you up to a toad to say something about you. Compare unlike to unlike. I hope that’s not too confusing because if you taste-tested apples and pears, you would say “I compared the apples with the pears”, but if you thought the apple tasted like a pear you would say “I compare this apple to a pear”. Do you see? In the former, I compare qualities of things that are in some way alike; in the latter, I compare the things one to the other.

A good way to decide which to use is to consider whether you are saying something is like something else or whether you are saying something is different from something else. When you compare figures, you are saying they are different and you are comparing them to see the difference; when you compare me to a toad, you are saying I am like a toad. Note that Shakespeare, when he said "shall I compare thee to a summer's day" was not suggesting that he should take you and a summer's day and see how you compare, but was asking whether you are like a summer's day at all.

A sudden jolt from an unusually uneven joint in the tracks woke me
from my thoughts to the present. Soon I would be home with my own,
where I had a place in a very different world. I sighed, looking out
at the clustered thunderheads above, thinking that I have

Had. You are in the past tense here.

much to
learn, just as Derby and Tophat and Nikola have much to learn. One
day Death will find each of us, busy fellow that he is. Until then
the Great Spirit will continue to teach us all.

And so it ended with a whimper, not a bang. My advice, I hope you’ll take it, is to go back and rebuild the story. Think about where it could go once you’ve set the scene. Make something happen. It would have been quite cool had you made Tesla your main character, and contrasted his striving with that of the gambler/magician.

On the plus side, you more or less stuck to the assignment. Thanks for trying it. I think it was a decent effort. I reproduce it in full below so that others can read it without being interrupted by me.

The copyright in this story belongs to its author, whose right to be identified as the author I respect by affixing his name, and the story is posted here with the author’s permission, their rights reserved.



Intercontinental

Death has been healthy and prosperous lately. My mother passed away 5
years ago, at about the time the war ended and Mr. Booth put down the
President. My father is old and sick, little time can remain to him.
No sooner did I return home from being educated than I received word
that Grandmother was gone. Yes, Death has been a busy fellow.

On the trip east it had seemed appropriate to dress in a fine suit.
When one as wealthy as Grandmother leaves the Earth, many others of
equivalent station gather around to distract themselves from the fact
of their own mortality by expressing sorrow at the corpse's passing
while they wonder what they will inherit. Grandmother made fools of
them all, I was the only one to inherit, the only one with no care for
the wealth but great sorrow at the departure of such a good woman.

Leaving the East for what I hoped would be the last time, I discarded
the fine suit as a thing of no value beyond that of any other hair
shirt, and carried with me only one small leather bag. The lawyers
would count the money that Grandmother left to me, and they would
parcel it out when I needed it, if I needed it; for the moment my only
need was peace, a thing always hard gained and never parcelled out by
lawyers.

At Kansas City it was necessary to change trains for the final leg of
my journey. It was good to be off the train for at least a few
moments, it gave my buttocks a break from the constant pounding as the
train's wheels moved across thousands of uneven joints in the track.
I recalled watching them build the railroad when I was a boy, peering
over hilltops to watch the coolies lay track under close supervision.
When it was hot sometimes one of the coolies would die from some
combination of dehydration, heat prostration, and sheer overwork. His
fellows would be allowed to bury him as long as they were quick about
it, but they had to make up the time lost, and all had to work harder
to make up for the fallen one so that the rails could continue toward
completion on schedule.

There were fewer cars on the train west, and by the time I entered,
only one seat remained. I sat across from two men of indeterminate
age, both wearing black suits, one wearing a derby and the other
wearing a tophat. As I sat, they glanced over, then resumed their
animated conversation. I spent my time looking out the window as the
world passed by, but in such a confined space their words floated
through my thoughts.

As the track joints below us noisily battered our behinds through the
hard seats, and the country outside slowly became more familiar, a
picture of the two men and their lives effortlessly assembled itself
in my mind. We three were all dressed for our destinations, they for
the city, and myself for the land beyond the end of the tracks. Our
clothing categorized us; their suits made them competitors for the
favors of city life, and my rougher clothing made me an outsider,
unworthy of their attention, yet free to observe them because of our
proximity.

It seemed that Derby was a gambler, one of a familiar breed who sought
easy wealth on a path of risk; Tophat was a magician of sorts, able to
walk a coin across his knuckles and make it disappear. I wondered at
both, what was piecing itself together of their lives seemed strange
to me indeed.

They spoke of many things. They spoke of politics, and of women, and
of wealth and how to gain it. They spoke of lesser men, and men of
lesser breeding, as they would speak of servants or cattle. They
seemed to have dreams that were remarkably similar, and included an
expansive home in which they would pursue their leisure to the
admiration of all. On the train east I had been fortunate enough to
share a car with a very interesting man named Nikola, a man of thought
and some understanding who had been seeking a place to carry out
experiments with lightning. Compared to him, Derby and Tophat seemed
common graspers of trinkets.

A sudden jolt from an unusually uneven joint in the tracks woke me
from my thoughts to the present. Soon I would be home with my own,
where I had a place in a very different world. I sighed, looking out
at the clustered thunderheads above, thinking that I have much to
learn, just as Derby and Tophat and Nikola have much to learn. One
day Death will find each of us, busy fellow that he is. Until then
the Great Spirit will continue to teach us all.

boots 2007

Monday, August 28, 2006

Workshop: Soon enough

I approach criticising Father Luke’s story with some trepidation. I’m one of the Father’s biggest fans. He writes very much like Bukowski, but with a depth Bukowski never had, and a subtlety that I think Bukowski aimed for but rarely achieved. When Father Luke is successful, which he is sometimes but not always, he finds a huge theme in a tiny moment. Like Bukowski’s, his stories are often autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical. They are hardbitten but not entirely cynical. The impression is of an insightful man whom life has toughened but whose flame has not gone out.

Having said that, at first I wasn’t entirely convinced by Soon enough. I felt some discomfort in tone. I know this is new ground for Father Luke, but some of the confidence is gone from his writing. I think the central metaphor is quite obvious – I would have been surprised if no one had made the connection between train trip and life’s journey. That’s not to say Father Luke hasn’t used it neatly; he has (and I’m hoping that I can find a place or two where I can show that the Father’s eye for the telling detail really puts colour into the metaphor). But I felt maybe he could have gone on with it. However, thinking about it, I reckon that the denouement rescues it.

Soon Enough

Presently the train pulled into the station.


The first sentence, we all know, although it doesn’t “make or break” the story, sets the tone, sometimes irrevocably. I didn’t like “Presently”. It has such specialised usage (commonly in “I’ll be there presently”, where it means “very soon” and “he is presently head of equities”, where it is used for “now”, not that “now” is needed, given that the present tense in this context says “now”) that I struggled to make meaning with it. I wonder whether it is saying “Just then, the train...” or “Soon afterwards, the train...”

I would like either here. They make the sentence much more interesting than simply plainly stating that the train pulled into the station (although I’m enough of an admirer of plain writing to feel that is a perfectly decent start). The first says that something has been going on and it’s quite abruptly interrupted. It makes the character – whom we are yet to meet, so it could be characters – pre-exist. The second gives an even stronger idea of something’s having happened. And on top of this, we generally use it to say “this is the next significant thing that happened”. It conveys weight both to what has gone and what is to come.

I liked that it’s the train. This makes the train a focus of interest, because it’s not just any train. We are tipped off that the train is significant to the character(s). If the train was just the insignificant mode of transport in a story, it’d be “a” train.

Do I really think short phrases or single words really convey such a huge freight of meaning. Yes, I do. Sometimes, there’s a happy chance to do a lot of work with a few words. Not always: some of the time there just is more to say, but on occasion there is le mot juste.


There were three cars
including the train's engine.


I think this is too simple and would have read better as a more active sentence without the existential there is. Because I would choose “the engine pulled two cars”, I’d need to change my first-sentence “pulled” into, maybe, “drew”.

The conductor wore a black cap, wire
glasses and black sleeve protectors.


As a very minor matter, Father Luke is an American, so there should be a comma before the “and”.

I liked “black cap”. I immediately thought “hanging judge”.


He held the brim of his hat and
jumped onto the gravel of the tracks near the outside platform.



I like that he held onto his hat. Because it is what you say when someone does something daring, isn’t it? Father Luke isn’t too familiar with trains. If he was, he’d probably have said “trackway” rather than “tracks” (which to me at least are just the rails) and “up platform” or “down platform” for “outside platform” (the latter is okay but if the platforms weren’t numbered, this is how you’d probably refer to them).

He
walked into an empty train station.

Glare made it impossible to see inside the windows of the train.


“through the windows of the train” or “inside the train”. You can’t write both together because the sentence says you are literally trying to see inside the window pane.


Inside the middle car, Pastor Mc Corkhill sat watching a coin spin on
a table with his forearms resting on his thighs, flattening the crease
in his black pants.


Whether intentionally or not, here is something Father Luke always does well: neat observation. The pastor does not just have his forearms resting on his thighs, but is resting on them firmly enough to flatten the crease in his pants. I know that that doesn’t have to be too firm but the point is, you know the author has seen someone slumped onto their knees and has thought, man, they’re so slumped that they’ve flattened out their trousers.


Life moves us, he thought, watching the coin. Moves us, and moves
through us with little or no matter as to our preferences. All in all
there is no real fairness to it at all. A ride with no choices and but
one final destination.


Because the coin metaphor is often used in poker, I think of coins as the symbol of chance. I see a contradiction here that I think works very well. When I read “pastor” (and note that it’s the black-hat type), I start thinking of the more protestant Protestants, if you know what I mean). I think of John Calvin, and of course the notion that our lives are predestined and God’s will, not your free will, is done. The contradiction is that the pastor is thinking that life is controlled not by God’s will but by chance.

The silver coin slowed and dropped to one side. Pastor Mc Corkhill
reached his left arm up, tugged at his cuff so that white sleeve
showed from under his black coat. He picked the coin up with his right
hand and spun it. He glanced to the window, squinting against the
glint of the setting sun as it reflected off the tin roof of the
station.


Squint and glint jingle a bit, and setting suns don’t really “glint”. Father Luke must have a similar late afternoon to ours, because at five o’clock it becomes almost impossible to drive west, because the low sun is blinding. I’d maybe just go for “light” or just “squinting against the setting sun...” As a minor matter, I might have preferred "glanced through the window". If he was looking at the window rather than through it, I would write "glanced at the window". Partridge is good for writers who struggle with the correct prepositions to use with verbs.


The conductor walked to the train. He grabbed hold and pulled himself
up and into the train.

Presently the train began moving.

Presently works here for the reasons it didn’t work previously. Here it means “Soon afterwards” with a hint of “as expected”.


It would arrive at it's destination
soon enough.


“its”.

Now this sentence rocked. “Soon enough” nearly always has the implication “so don’t be in a hurry” or at least of “unhurriedness”, sometimes even unwantedness, as in “If I never see him again, that’ll be soon enough for me”. It’s also a rather insouciant phrase. It’s a weary phrase, a sighing phrase; it says “I can’t be fucked”. The train will make its destination soon enough but yeah, so what? Who cares, next…

Suddenly, I realise Father Luke has set us up. The portentousness of the black cap and the dark-clad priest and conductor, and so on, has led us to feel that this is all very serious. But the Father leaves us with a shrug. In a sentence, he has dismissed life’s journey and you realise that he is not saying life is like a journey, blah blah, but that life is something you simply ride in, no more significant than a train trip from here to there. He says yeah, you know, it’s all very exciting but you just sit back in your seat and, because trains just do go where they’re going, you’ll get where you’re going soon enough.

That’s my opinion. I’d be glad to hear others. Obviously there are the comments but if I get an email about the story, I’ll post it. I am posting the story in full below so that it can be read. As with all these stories, just so it’s clear, the copyright in all these stories belongs to its author, whose right to be identified as the author I of course respect by affixing their name (a far more important right than copyright, in my view), and the story is posted here with the author’s permission, their rights reserved.

***

Soon Enough

Presently the train pulled into the station. There were three cars
including the train's engine. The conductor wore a black cap, wire
glasses and black sleeve protectors. He held the brim of his hat and
jumped onto the gravel of the tracks near the outside platform. He
walked into an empty train station.

Glare made it impossible to see inside the windows of the train.
Inside the middle car, Pastor Mc Corkhill sat watching a coin spin on
a table with his forearms resting on his thighs, flattening the crease
in his black pants.

Life moves us, he thought, watching the coin. Moves us, and moves
through us with little or no matter as to our preferences. All in all
there is no real fairness to it at all. A ride with no choices and but
one final destination.

The silver coin slowed and dropped to one side. Pastor Mc Corkhill
reached his left arm up, tugged at his cuff so that white sleeve
showed from under his black coat. He picked the coin up with his right
hand and spun it. He glanced to the window, squinting against the
glint of the setting sun as it reflected off the tin roof of the
station.

The conductor walked to the train. He grabbed hold and pulled himself
up and into the train.

Presently the train began moving. It would arrive at it's destination
soon enough.

Father Luke 2007

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Chinese whisper

So, anyway, I forgot to lie on my application form for a visa for China and had to write a statement that I was only going there for tourism and not to work. Because it's the last thing China needs, rogue textbook editors running around fixing up copy.

Actually, I could do with the work. If anyone were to ask me to fix up a textbook while I was strolling the streets of Shanghai or Qingdao, I would take them up on it. I sit down at night with columns of figures: on one side, the work I can count on coming in and my current resources, on the other, the outgoings I must meet. It seems a million miles from my carefree, often broke youth. I suppose this is what "growing up" comes down to.

It has taken the shine off my trip a little, knowing that if I didn't go, I would be financially secure for the rest of the year. But uncertainty is, I suppose, part of being a freelance, and so too is being flooded or being parched. I daresay I will score a couple of projects later in the year and you will find me, come November, moaning that I just can't keep up.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Seasoned competitors

Reading were my second team when I was a child. Why I had two teams, I don't know, but I did. I followed their results and was happy when they won, sad when they lost. Not as happy or sad as I was about Leeds, but faintly so. Reading were one of those teams who yo-yo'd between the bottom two divisions, whose highest aspiration was to make it to the Second. So it's with some joy that I see that Reading won their first match in the Premiership, which was unthinkable when I used to stand in the terraces and watch Davey Crown kick lumps out of opposition strikers.

My second team has since childhood always been the local side, wherever I have lived. Briefly that was Reading, coincidentally, but it has also been Brighton, QPR, Gloucester City and Queensland Roar, who I will go to watch on Saturday. I suppose it would have been Palace when I lived in Clapham but I didn't go to football then. I have been to other grounds, of course, mainly to watch Leeds.

Nothing beats live football. You could compare it with watching a band live against listening to their records (or more accurately watching them perform live on TV). It is the fellow feeling: the suffering together, the joy of scoring, winning, and something more. The more is that you can understand football so much more if you are watching it live. The agonies of the players are realler; the intricacies clearer; the skills more impressive. The beautiful game is just more beautiful in the flesh.

I do not have particularly high hopes of the new season. For Leeds, it is looking like an uphill struggle. They sold the best of their strikers and the new signings do not look to me like those of an ambitious, upwardly mobile team; rather, they seem the water-treading shufflings of the permanent second-level outfit. For the Roar, the exciting talents of Brosque and Williams are gone, and in their place are players who do not inspire much hope of improvement. Worst of all, Bleiberg was not sacked, although he thoroughly deserved it, and there is no sign at all that he has learned anything from last season. In the preseason, the Roar have been as muddled and hopeless as they were in the worst of last season. Still, football is one of the few areas of life in which it feels about as good to suffer as it does to succeed, so I am sure I will enjoy the season nonetheless, if only because I'll have plenty to moan about.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I doubt it

What use is it to doubt? We are adrift at sea and we are lucky if we have a boat. Why would we want to dive in and risk drowning in seas that are over our heads?

I look at Hizbullah's boys with envy. They are stupid but they are not doubtful of the course their lives should take. They are rooted in a place and they are fuelled by hatred of the Other and love of their god.

We imagine they are angry but we are wrong to, I think. They are happy. Happiness is contented striving, I once read. I can go with that. If I had a cause I could sacrifice myself to, I think I would be happy.

***

In any case, the Cartesian project is based on a lie, that being that it is good to doubt. It has led us all to pretending to doubt the wrong things. In a sense, relativism was a certain outcome of Descartes' sitting in front of his fire, because if you will not allow a thing to be right in and of itself (even though Descartes himself did not go that far; he had to accommodate a faith in God that the likes of me do not), then you allow everything to be right.

But is it a lie? That's my first thought because science has not been built on doubts (don't kid yourself that falsification implies doubt: it has been built on increasing certainty through induction). But so much of what we know points to doubt as central: quantum mechanics is the paradigm of doubting what is going on; no thinking person can either believe or disbelieve in God (by which I mean the concept rather than any particular version of it) without doubt unless they make a fundamental commitment that goes beyond rationality (I was interested to find out -- and a little disappointed -- that Brisbane's secular humanists, who claim to be ultrarationalists, are as dogmatic about the nonexistence of God as some Christians are about his existence, and on as little evidence (although, saying that, I very much enjoyed reading one screaming fundamentalist nutter's philosophical disproof of God, which I only regretted was too incomprehensible for me to analyse here, but centred on a belief that God is excluded by modern physics)); theories that are right today are wrong tomorrow. Sometimes knowledge seems impossible. Yet we know it is not. We know that even if our knowledge is built on shaky foundations, we'll still cleave to it. I do not entirely think this is wrong because swimming around in unknowing can be so painful.

These have become notes, where they were to be a reasoned and interesting piece. I was sidetracked and will have to come back to it. Never mind.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

On flair versus technique

Occasionally, a person who has inferior writing skills to mine will tell me that they don't have anything to learn from me because I am rules-bound and they are creative. The notion is that creativity is somehow damaged by learning how to write well technically. This is transparently rubbish. Most great writers are technically excellent and have read and studied writing hard. The difference between them and the unschooled is visible in their writing. I consider that the main ramification of my better understanding of technical side is that not only do I write better than the "creative" ones but I can tell them why too.

Just now, a friend of mine told me that they don't want to take part in my online workshop because they have nothing to learn from me. They implied that, because I am an editor, I am just a rules-bound mole, delving away in language to throw up molehills of boring, crusty old bollocks, whereas they, free from the constraints of learning how to write, could take flight. Naturally, this would have made more impact on me had it been true that the person in question really could write brilliantly, but as so often is the case with the "creative" types who think they cannot learn, it is not true.

Just so I'm not misunderstood, I'm not suggesting that a person must understand what they are doing to be able to do it. I'm rather pointing out that a technical review is a help when you are not able to do what you are trying to. Most of the "rules" of English are internalised in competent writers (many are of course the same as those of spoken English, and one rarely thinks of speakers as incompetent).

This is what I wrote to them:

You would understand writing better -- and be a much better writer for it -- if you understood that there is no opposition between "creativity" and "rules", because the "rules" are not constraints on creativity but part of the means for building it! They aren't either analogous to laws, or even road rules. They are more like the road than the rules for driving on it. And if I am helping people learn to write, I don't discuss their writing solely in terms of "rules" (although I focus on that when I am blogging about writing because I do not generally blog reviews or critiques, and I am interested in technical aspects of writing for obvious reasons). When I've reviewed your writing, I didn't discuss it with you in terms of the rules, rather, I focused on much broader ideas of how you communicate what you want to say (or don't), how you use register (or don't). Learning how to write is not a question of learning grammar but of learning how to mould your communication effectively. It's a rather small part of learning to write to learn good grammar, but a big part to learn why bad grammar is fucking up your message. If you compare writing with making music, grammar is like music theory. You may not know the "rules" of music theory, but if you disobey them, your music will, I'm sorry to say, not work.


I am not hurt or dismayed when someone claims that I can't possibly have an imagination, be creative or be an artist because I have a good technical understanding of English and use it to make a living. I simply consider that person to be ignorant of what makes good writing good and no surprise: you rarely hear that from someone who actually can write well. Good writers may have natural talent but they are aware that they had to nurture it, increase it and mature it.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Pimp needed?

I've edited everything in my time. I've worked on a legal newspaper, the local paper, a medical magazine (fun pictures), financial reports, vanity publications, legit books, management and finance textbooks, shipping ads, newsletters, maps, curricula, posters. These days I specialise in finance. Not by choice but because anyone who knows I do it will insist I edit finance rather than anything else. I don't care. Words are words. Finance has its own jargon but it's mostly written in English, like anything else.

If I had a choice, I'd work as a manuscript doctor. I'd be good at it. But I don't know where I'd acquire clients from. Maybe I could advertise on my own account. I know what you're thinking. Most clients would feel that the poison was better than the cure if I doctored them, but I can work with registers. Most publishing works on a courtly but entirely fake courtesy, which I have long mastered. You could call it a professional tone if you liked, or the grease on the wheels maybe. I can do greasy.

But I am not choosy. So long as it involves hard cash, I'll edit anything. I have no scruples at all in deploying my skills. I might hesitate to edit for the Israeli Defence Force or the Conservative Party, but actually I'm a bit light at the moment, so, erm, so long as no one knows...

But the money has to be there. The other day an acquaintance asked me to edit a quarterly for him. He was a bit sketchy about the pay and he wanted to make it quarterly too. I said look, how much are you proposing to pay. He wanted me to telephone him and talk it over. But I don't do telephoning if I can help it, so I said look, how much are you paying and would you pay a retainer? Because, it was clear, he wanted only to pay when he had been paid and wanted to speak to me so that he could sell that. I'm not a good target for telesales at the best of times because if I wanted to buy, I would be out looking for what I wanted. I don't do impulse buying of anything bigger than a chocolate bar. Anyway, I don't like talking about money. I've never liked making loans, because I hate to ask for the money back, yet if I don't, I fret over it (not because of the lost money but because of the error of judgement and the necessity of rethinking my view of the delinquent borrower).

What is curious is that the skills you have are never sufficient for the job. What I mean is, when you are trying to get hired, the skill you most need is making a good first impression. When you are a freelance, the skill you need is to sell yourself, I suppose. There must be many people out there who would love to pay me to do what I do but how can they know I can do it? It's a mystery to me how I can reach them. (I'm not saying it's a mystery how they can be reached. I expect others could reach them easily. But how could I do it? I cannot do "spec". I cannot ring people I don't know and ask them for things. I can no more do that than fly.) I need an agent! But editors do not have agents; they just have their own wits. Sigh. Maybe I should put an ad in the paper for a pimp...

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Shaving the world

One of the more often misunderstood concepts in science and philosophy is Occam's Razor. The ignoranti take it to mean that the simplest theory is correct. But the Razor is not a tool for deciding correctness, but is better used to decide which model to prefer. Simply stated, it says that one should prefer the simplest explanation for all the facts at hand.

The key word is "all". Maxwell's demon is a simpler explanation for electrons than superstrings but the demon does not explain all the properties of electrons. Naturally, it can be seen that at greater levels of complexity and abstraction, different explanations will be preferable.

I am, I suppose, an Occamist. I tend to accept as my model whatever most simply explains what I know about things. If I find out more, I broaden my model, but I am always attempting to pare away the frills. The Razor is for doing just that, slicing away unnecessary frills to leave the bare bones of explanation.

Religion does not fare well at the touch of the Razor. Mostly this is because it is stuffed with frills and, more importantly, because it does not explain facts so much as it explains things that are ideal rather than real. In other words, it explains what we have inside us far better than it does what is out there. It explains ways to deal with fears, insecurities and emptinesses. (That is not to say it is the best explanation of those things, only that that is what it is for.)

Is it not though simple to say "goddidit"? Well yes, but the Razor does not urge us to accept the simplest theory possible, rather that which is simplest at the level of complexity we are considering. Goddidit is unsatisfying because it is a very broad, meta-explanation, which does not concern itself with trivial things such as the facts: we say God created the universe, but we do not say how, specifically, or why he created it with this bit rather than that. Not that religionists have not sought to explain what there is, but once they do, the simplicity of goddidit quickly becomes incredibly complex. The concept of a god who just does becomes complicated to one that does this but not that, until the unity of an ineffable god has become a Byzantine being, inscrutable because of the complexity of motive and ability he is made from rather than because of an innate unknowability.

Unknowability is the anti-Razor, something the Occamist in me dislikes a great deal. Unknowability is a closed door for the mind. The Razor says prefer the simplest explanation; by extension, it can be taken to say abhor the lack of explanation (I am not sure what William himself said about that but for me it is clear that saying that a thing cannot be explained is a bad thing). In the case of God, the chief difficulty with unknowability should be clear (actually, it's a good illustration of why unknowability is a bad thing for Occamists). The simplest explanation for God's being unknowable is nonexistence. Any other explanation will be much more complicated, not least because it will have to posit a being with motives for being unknowable: it should go without saying that a being with those motives is an entity more than no being at all. The Razor demands that we ask why our supernatural being should have those motives. What do they explain? The only thing, it seems to me, that is explained by your being's having some motive or other for being unknowable, is its unknowableness. Which is more simply explained by its nonexistence.

Voila! Occam's Razor slices away an unknowable god. It's easy to do so because most mystical stuff adds nothing to our understanding of the physical world (which is why we call it the "supernatural"; I am using the word "physical" in an extremely broad sense, to mean "what there is", which obviously includes things that are not physical in a narrower sense). What the ignoranti do not grasp though is that this is not in any way a disproof of God. The secular humanists of Brisbane, whom I consider religionists equally as distasteful as any fundamentalist haters, do not understand that the Razor does not decide correctness but only preferability. A rational mind should prefer explanations that do not include gods but those explanations may well be incorrect. There could be a god because neither he (or she) nor anything in the universe can be compelled not to exist just because it is a frill! The universe is not required to be austere (it would be a simpler place, would it not, were there not dozens of particles that interacted in bizarre, counterintuitive ways). The key, again, is to understand that Occam demands that we ought not to complicate explanations unnecessarily, not that we should simplify them for the sake of it.

I find this approach to life (and the philosophy of it, particularly of science understood as a way of looking at the world) satisfying but not, I struggle for the right word, warming. It is not a concept that gives you a hug. The Razor tells me that when I die, I will dissolve into sludge, oblivious, my time as short as three score years and ten or a little more. It tells me that this is a world of atoms and the forces between them, unchangeable by any but brute means, and not of mystical forces that interplay in weird and wonderful ways, susceptible to intervention by wishing them different. It tells me, painful as it is to hear, that I am nothing, not a soul riding in a body, not a consciousness, a mind sitting in a brain, nothing at all but echoes of whirling, singing strings, pointless, arbitrary, meaningless (because "meaning" is an unnecessary entity in explaining me).

But I have never quite been able to accept things as part of my understanding of life just because they make it more comfortable. (Would I if I could? I don't know because it is so alien to me, but perhaps I would take many little Pascal wagers to make life more bearable.) Perhaps life would be richer for it. I would be smaller but the world would grow by comparison. The two will always conflict in me: satisfaction at the opening of doors accepting the Razor allows and discomfort at the chill of bigness that walking through the doors entails.

Friday, August 4, 2006

The day after

Human beings can, we all know, be cruelly stupid. At least, you have to believe that is our problem if you do not want to have to believe that we are hopelessly venal.

A couple of days ago, I was out in Platypus Bay watching a subadult humpback backflipping on a fresh winter's day. A better expression of the splendour of life you couldn't wish for. And it's the climax of a wonderful story. The group of whales that travel up and down Australia's east coast had fallen in number to 200 or so. This is the very verge of unsustainability. I'm not clear on exactly why (another gap that I must fill at some point) but for all species there is a point surprisingly far from zero, past which a population cannot recover. The moratorium on whaling came just in time though and now there are 7000 whales in this group. They have survived their predators -- orcas and big sharks mostly -- by using precisely the skill the subadult was demonstrating: making a frightening splash and using their agility to become a target that is too energy sapping to bother with.

But backflipping will not save the subadult from a harpoon. He will one day approach a boat, curious because these intelligent animals like to know what is in the world around them, and some guy will press the button that will end his life.

I feel mournful as their song when I think about a nation of killers who have to give whalemeat away free to schools to try to encourage kids who prefer beef to eat it. I feel it is a small but terrible tragedy that my grandchildren, should they take the boat from Urangan harbour into Hervey Bay, which is a safe haven for the whales, too shallow for their predators and sheltered from ocean swells by Frasier Island, will watch nothing more than dolphins. I know that life changes and evolves, that species come and go, but we are watching one more beautiful part of our legacy be destroyed by people who cannot, will not look past tomorrow to the day after.