Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Text blocks (or how not to present your work)

When you send your manuscript out, it should go in its Sunday best. It's the equivalent of an interview, after all. More and more these days I receive people's novels laid out in text blocks, and I scream when I do. What is a text block? This is. Now listen up while I explain a little about HTML. That's the code behind webpages (or will be until XHTML takes over soon). Every element is tagged, including paragraphs, and the standard styling for that tag is that the paragraph will be followed by a double-line space and will not begin with an indent.

Here we are, text block number two. So, this new habit of writing novels in text blocks I took to be a consequence of emails, the style of which may have been influenced by websites. But perhaps not.

Text block number three (once known as a paragraph). When I was tutoring at the Oxford University summer school recently, the most advanced student, who is doing a PhD in creative writing, presented his work in text blocks. I screamed. 'No one,' he said, 'in all my years studying this subject, has ever mentioned it. Quite the opposite. They insist on it.'

What? He went on to explain that he's studying creative writing academically, and academic papers have to be in text blocks. Given that the internet began as a means of academic communication, is that the source of the rot? It seems likely. After all, it almost makes sense given that the composition of essays is often thought of as building blocks of ideas, each paragraph representing a single unit of thought, building block on block to your thumping conclusion. And what academic essays tend not to include is dialogue.

It's when we get to dialogue that this format looks really ridiculous. After a block of exposition you suddenly get very spacy speech, and if a novel is dialogue rich, the visual impact is just dreadful. Subtle things, words on the page. As poets know, how you arrange them is important. Text laid out in blocks does not invite the reader in to a long and fruitful fictional dream. Instead it makes her blink involuntarily and possibly even unconsciously as she tries to imagine people not speaking in dialogue so much as alternating monologue.

'What?' she thinks, 'is this all about?'

'Did you say something, dear?' asks her husband, muting the sound on the TV.

'No, just mumbling to myself,' she says, and pushes the earplugs in deeper.

See what I mean? In between block paragraphs, you get this odd interchange between characters which has no flow. So please, have a look at your precious manuscript. Could you not make it look a little more like a book?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A friendship immortalised

In February last year, a very good friend died. 'Very good friend' of the kind who live in your heart but you may not see or hear from too often. I didn't hear about his death until I got a Christmas card from his widow. That hurt, it really, really hurt. I missed the funeral and that's something that never can be regained. I've always had cross-gender friendships and perhaps I forget, in my innocence, how worrying they can be for the partner. Anyway, I've been in correspondence with her and all was forgiven and forgotten, until. . .

I discovered today that Pallas and the Centaur is available on a site selling 'antique collectibles' at a very nice price of £30. It was made collectible by it having been signed to my friend and his wife, and part of its historical attraction is that a postcard I sent to my friend was found between the pages.

Well, I folded up and moaned, that she had got rid of my books. Authors often have the misery of finding copies of their works in second-hand and charity shops. One poor mutt found a copy of his signed 'To Mum and Dad' in Oxfam! So I'm used to it and the pain was fleeting. Then I read the catalogue entry again and realised that my friendship had been turned into a piece of history, made diamond. It gave me a sense of destiny being out of one's control. An author's true fate lies in the antiquities catalogues of the future.

So, apply here for your investment copies of my novels! I will give you, at no extra cost, a signed dedication and may be even a postcard. All you need to do to realise its potential is to die young leaving a widow with a canny sense of business.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Screaming toads

The other day one of the cats caught an adult toad and was tossing it about. It's a little-known fact, perhaps, but toads scream - a high pitched squeak like a mouse. It was the scream that drew me out to the garden to rescue the poor creature. Since then I've been pondering the question, 'Why do creatures scream?' Is it just a release of fear or emotion, or is it a call for help? I would like to think it is the latter, although the fact that I used to scream at Beatles concerts suggests it isn't. But if it is a call for help, then it means that help may be hoped for and expected. What is true, however, is that we respond to screams so automatically that, neurologically speaking, it seems to be in the same league as fight or flight. Fight - flight - rush in to help. If this is the case, it means our niceness is hard-wired. In other words, it's natural to be good. Just thought I'd mention it.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Selfless Genie

Watching Richard Dawkins's programme on Darwin last week had David shifting about in annoyance saying TV shouldn't be allowed to broadcast such rubbish. On such subjective criteria, our screens would be blank. Anyway, as I was on my own last evening, I could watch part two without let or hindrance. Am I Dawkins fan? Of course not. I just fantasize about presenting him with an argument so pithy and logical that it would have his biological wires shorting, and so my enjoyment of such programmes is the search for the hole in the theory. I'll not be the one to find it - an intuitive sense of wrong! is no argument - but one day this prophet of rationalism will fall from his horse, blinded by a Damascene light, and I want to be there when it happens.

The series certainly got more interesting last night as Dawkins asked the question, why altruism? Why are we kind, charitable and generous? He outlined the evolution of his own thought, from the view that looking after one another helps us survive to the rather grander perspective that humans have gone further with altruism than animals, that we are kind to strangers and not just kin, for the reason that the selfish gene (which he proposes as the motive of life) has misfired in the human species, that we are going beyond our causes, that we have seen and understood what made us and have decided to go further.

If this keeps biologists happy - because in our heightened state we cannot allow our specialisms to be cross-contaminated by others (i.e. a biologist cannot be a theologian or philosopher) - so be it, but there's a problem. There's probably many, but I can only see one. In order to believe in the selfish gene (and belief is what is required in the absence of proof), we have to swallow the proposition that this infinitesimal speck of creation (I just looked up 'gene' and find it is a 'unit of heredity', a particle of a chromosome, a code) has a mind of its own. As does nature. And as, apparently, does 'evolution', which appears to be a force worthy of personification: a metaphor which allows such statesments as 'Evolution has no goals'. That's an awful lot to swallow, but I guess there's room if we've disgorged gods, angels and the Creator, on the grounds that they are invisible, non-existent fantasies.

What's upsetting Dawkins, apart from the Creationists, is the idea of social Darwinism, an idea which says that, if nature is ruthless, we may as well be the same, especially in war and business. He very deftly kicked this one into touch by demonstrating that 'niceness' is a factor in sexual selection. But if this were true, how come there are so many abused women and children in the world? Why are so many wives dumped in preference for another, another who is younger rather than nicer? All the magazines tell us to keep our figures, not our smiles. Even children in the playground follow the bully rather than the nice kid. It's not enough, professor, not enough.

Being nice, kind, charitable and generous: these are Dawkins's words to explain the spanner in his selfish works. There is another word he did not use, dare not use. It is love. And that, according to St Paul, is what God is. Let us dispense for a moment with the image of God as a being, that phantom which science has been attacking since science began. Let us agree with the scientists: he does not exist. Not in that form, or any form. If we could only stop punching shadows, we might come to realise that we are all saying and believing the same thing, only in different terminologies. That by which Dawkins sees, knows, wonders and understands; that by which there is beauty (and no, it is not a matter of sexual selection - trees don't look gorgeous to other trees); that by which all beings may act with no reward for themselves (apart from a sublime moment of being other than themselves); that ineffable, mysterious thing which provides no evidence of itself except that which is all around us (and in us) for those with the eyes to see: that is love, that is God.

Having the eyes to see is the important thing. Being able to see the Good comes naturally but stays only by education. Our vision of truth is easily distorted, even warped by the opinions of others, especially those who are both eloquent and clever (and good-looking). It needs nurture and culture. Being nice breaks down all too easily in extreme situations. We need the strength of wisdom and I propose that any system of thought which depends on considering those who differ from it to be fools is not the best place to find it.

One last thought: apparently the double-helix of DNA fits into a golden rectangle and in cross-section it is a decagon, which is formed from two pentagons, and the ratio of the diagonal of a pentagon to its side is Phi : 1. A philosopher would say from this that all life, and life itself, is formed out of beauty. A biologist would say that our idea of beauty comes from our genes.

Anyone interested in reading about the significance of Darwin's nausea both to himself and all mankind should read Patrick Harpur's wonderful book, 'The Philosopher's Fire: a History of the Imagination'.

I've blathered enough. Over to this morning's 'Thought for the Day' courtesy of the School of Philosophy in New Zealand:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason
for my existence, for God is love.
Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true
character. Love is my name.

- Thomas Merton
(1915 - 1968)
American Trappist monk

Friday, 8 August 2008

Harvest time

As I was writing the last post, I realised that I've been blogging for just over a year now, that this time last year, after the flood, our allotment plot was post-apocalyptic, a scene of death and decay, all brown stumps and foul stench.

This year. . . A cool, wet summer has meant that everything has gone, if not bananas, then beans. Borlotti beans, runner beans, french dwarf and climbing french; a cloud of yellow mangetout, four foot tall, obscuring the peas planted inbetween; squashes trailing, tendrilling, fingering their way down rows of potatoes and tomatoes; cucumbers, lettuces, sweet corn, onions, beetroot. . . You name it, we're eating it.

After the devastation of the flood, we decided to dig the whole plot over and make raised beds. It was easier than I'd supposed, having found a supplier of recycled wood who cut planks (well, ceiling joists) to size and delivered them to the site. Now we not only have the luxury of a great crop, but it's looking smart and weeded (mostly). Some things didn't work. My natty construction of a bean arch over the gully between two beds means that many of the beans are now out of reach, given that the gully has been taken over by a land-grabbing squash.

Still, that's why gardeners live long, because there is always an improvement to make for the next season. One of the last of our olduns, Harry, was out tending his plot last week. He left on the dot of 5.15, as always, and went home for his tea. After finishing his tea, he died. What a way to go! Well done, Harry. I hope there's space for cultivation in the Elysian Fields.

Exclamation marks!!!!

While many species are threatened with extinction, others thrive. Our garden is a heaving mass of tiny toads this summer and you tread the path with caution and dare not mow the lawn. Our cats have eaten enough to decide they don't want any more, although they are still partial to frogs when they find them. 

As in nature, so in punctuation. While the colon and semi-colon are rarely sighted these days, the exclamation mark is everywhere, hopping about in great clusters.

Treat exclamation marks as if they were chillies: a little goes a long way. Treat them as if you were carving them in stone rather than keeping one finger down on the keyboard. One exclamation mark means just that: it marks an exclamation. What do two or more mark? - they show only that, when you've used one previously, it was probably unnecessary. It's like an actor who shouts his first lines and then has to get even louder to signify anger or distress. Try taking all exclamation marks out of your work (and emails) and then put them back in only where one is required, i.e. after an exclamation. 'Watch out!' is an exclamation; 'she got off the train wearing pink slippers' is not.

Exclamation marks are the enemies of subtlety. Try and restict yourself to using them in dialogue only. 'She got off the train wearing pink slippers!' is justified if you want to indicate something about the character of the speaker, e.g. that she enjoys pointing out the shortcomings of others. After all, we don't use two or more question marks to indicate interrogation, or two or more full stops to indicate absolute finality (ellipses aside, which indicate the opposite). So no more multiple exclamation marks. As for !?! - that's the stuff of comics. Pow!