Saturday, 18 October 2014

I can't remember anything that I remember

I reckon I have a pretty good memory.

My brain seems to be pretty good at storing information. Ok, maybe not always quite so good at retrieving that information again, but I can usually catch it in the end.

People are often amazed at the stuff I can remember. My family is often blown away by the way I can give blow by blow descriptions of event that happened so long ago everyone else has long since forgotten them. I have vivid recollections of family holidays, sporting events, and books that I read when I was a little kid.

Except, here's the thing. I was reading up on some information about the latest research on the way the brain works (it's an occupational hazard of my job) and I discovered something that is either very interesting or very disturbing.

When we remember something, it's not like we just pull that information from our brain and then put it back again when we're done, as if our brain is like an organic filing cabinet. It's actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

Apparently, every time we recall some information, that information has to be re-encoded back into our memory (as if we're re-remembering it for the first time). And that re-encoding can be a highly imprecise thing. It can be affected by all sorts of things, like how we're feeling at the time, or what else is happening to us.

Basic upshot is, each time something is recalled from memory and then returned, it can change, maybe subtly or maybe in quite large ways. So in the end, what we think we are remembering are actually things that maybe never even happened (at least not in the way we remembered it).

Which kind of pisses me off. To think that for all these years I was walking around thinking I remembered stuff so well when I probably didn't. All these things I could remember that everybody else had forgotten - chances are they never ever happened in the first place.

Oh well. At least when I write things down, I can have some sense that things happened the way I thought they did. Maybe that's why I decided to be a writer. Maybe that's the only way I can provide some sense of permanence of memory, while everything else turns to vapour.

There was a reason I decided to use this topic for my blog post this week. I wish I could remember what it was.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A tale of Latvian backpackers

I'm going to get a bit nostalgic today.

I'm thinking about one of my great inspirations as a writer, Douglas Adams.

I learnt so much from his books. About how words written on a page can induce serious laughter. About how smart humour can be, getting into the realms of serious satire. About how characters can leap off the page, and dialogue can dance and sparkle.

But beyond the pure fun and enjoyment that I got (and still get) from reading his work, and the ways I try to duplicate that in my own writing (while at the same time trying to come up with my own voice and style, rather than slavishly copying), there's one additional message that I long ago learnt from his writing and which I'm always trying to follow.

It actually comes from one of his lesser known books. It's a non-fiction work titled Last Chance to See which describes his journeys around the world in the company of a zoologist to find a number of endangered species.

At one stage on his travels, they encounter a couple of German backpackers. Douglas Adams becomes really frustrated at the fact that this pair exhibit all the characteristics you would expect of stereotypical German backpackers (e.g. ridiculous efficiency and a strong sense of superiority) and hates the idea that he might be writing anything that would reinforce such stereotypes.

And that's when he decides that he won't. From here on in, these backpackers won't be German, they'll be Latvian instead.

He keeps to his word. In the chapters that follow, there are lots of references to those Latvian backpackers, and their sense of Latvian efficiency and superiority. It's a great part of what is already a great book (and highly recommended).

What did I learn from this? It's the basic idea that writers should not be reinforcing stereotypes. We should always be finding new ways to see the world and the people within it. In my writing, whenever I feel like I'm resorting to some sort of cliche or fixed type, I always try to pull back and think about how I could inject some originality or find some new way to express my ideas, rather than resorting to hoary old stereotypes.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, it's a little bit unavoidable. But it's always something I aspire to. And just another reason to give thanks to the great Douglas Adams.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Make a joke but don't break my eardrums

To anyone who knows me, even just a little bit, you'll know that funny is my thing.

I like to laugh. I like to make other people laugh. I like to write stories that make me laugh. I like to write stories that make other people laugh. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes not, but at least I enjoy trying.

Of course, as someone who is into funny, I really enjoy watching comedy films and television. In fact, I would probably say that overall, my writing is probably more influenced by performed comedy than it is by text-based works - particularly given I would say my major written influence is Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy which of course was originally written to be performed.

But there's one thing that I'm starting to find quite frustrating as a consumer of stuff that is supposed to be funny. I'm finding it more and more difficult to find comedy films that appeal to my sense of humour. And I think I've finally figured out the reason for this.

These days, comedy films seem to be soooo loud.

I'm not saying loudness itself is a problem. Loud works well, when it's able to set itself off against quietness. But when it just seems to be loudness competing with other loudness, it just ends up being, well, loud.

It seems to me that in most comedy films, each of the performers is competing against the others to see who can be the funniest - but they just end up getting louder and louder. And it's not just in so-called comedy films. This dynamic is now a big part of animated films - particularly those that fancy themselves as pitching a lot of jokes above the children to the adult audience. Sometimes it seems like every second character is riffing away like some sort of overly-extroverted New York stand-up comedian.

Don't get me wrong. I'm trying not to be some sort of anti-comedy grump. I just wish sometimes that it all wasn't quite so in your face. I know there's a way to be a little bit quiet and a little bit contemplative and still be a whole lot funny.

Biggest, like most of us, I always need a laugh. But I really don't need a headache.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

One from the heart (not)

There's a lot said about what art is meant to be, and what you need to do to be a true artist.

You often hear it said, when a particular artist is referred to, that he or she is really digging deep and baring their soul for the world.

It seems to be a particularly big deal in the world of music, where singers seem to think it's their goal to appear as if they're in the greatest of pain and heartbreak with every song that they sing.

That's all well and good, and I'm sure there is a place for this kind of art. But I have to say that, personally, I find it all a bit exhausting. I don't need everything I read, or watch or listen to, to take me so deeply into someone else's pain (concocted or not). Sometimes, I just want to read a really good story, or listen to a really good song that's sung well without the need for paroxysms of pain.

So what does that mean for me as a writer? Am I somehow seen as less of an artist because I'm not baring the depths of my soul for all the world to see? Is it my job to be eviscerating myself publicly for the benefit of my audience?

I don't think so. As a writer, I'm quite happy to be coming up with great stories that move and engage and entertain. And yes, there is always a little bit of my heart and soul in there. I can't help that because it's the way I write. But it isn't every last bit of me. When it comes down to it, it's just a story I've made up that I feel some readers out there will enjoy.

Because I'm not baring the deepest, darkest depths of my soul for the world, does that make it any lesser? Does that somehow mean that maybe I'm not as genuine as other writers? Is my work somehow less worthy as art?

I don't think so.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

One in, all in

I've talked before on this site about the question of whether the ability to write is inherent or something that can be learnt.

The conclusion I've always come to is that it's somewhere in between. I think there are some people who are natural writers, but you can always learn to be a better writer. To me, the best way of learning has always been to read lots, and especially read lots of really good writing. But I've always been prepared to investigate more direct methods as well.

I've taken more than my fair share of writing classes. Some have been useful. Others less so. I've had some really fantastic teachers who have really inspired me in my writing, and others who were clearly there just to take the paycheck.

But no matter how good the teaching was, there has been one thing above all that has really put me off ever wanting to do any more writing classes: the dreaded all-in workshop.

You may know what I'm talking about. Every week, one or two people are nominated to read their work out to the class. And then it begins. Open slather. One in, all in. It's really not a pretty sight.

It seems that everyone has an opinion. No matter how little sense they have of what your story is actually about, they'll have something to tell you about what's wrong with it. Your head gets pulled this way and that way, until you know longer have any idea of which advice is actually useful (and yes, you can get the occasional pearl of wisdom) and which ones are completely nonsensical, particularly as the most nonsensical suggestions often come from the loudest and most persistent members of the class.

Don't get me wrong. I really value feedback, and wouldn't dream of putting anything out without seeking the considered advice from people whose opinions I value. But random suggestions, thrown at me from all directions from people whose expertise range from zero to nil - I really don't find that useful at all.

Will I ever do more writing classes? Never say never is what I say. If the right class and the right teacher shows up, I'd be mad not to consider it. But as soon as there's any suggestion of an all-in class workshop, then I'm out of there.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

A story's not a story without a swordfight

I used to be a theatre buff.

Well, that might be exaggerating just a little. I used to go to the theatre quite a lot, but I'm not sure if I could really call myself a buff.

My parents are definitely theatre buffs. They go to the theatre all the time. For a while, back in my long distance past, I used to come along with them. Not sure why. I guess it seemed like a good thing to do. Maybe it was the pizza restaurant we always used to visit beforehand that had quite a bit to do with it.

It didn't take long for me to realise I wasn't that excited by theatre, although I did stick with it for a while. It took me a little longer to realise what the problem was, and why I wasn't so enthralled by the drama on the stage.

Unfortunately, in the end, I just couldn't get over the staginess of it all. And that no matter what ideas or themes underlined the play, and how potentially worthwhile or dramatic they might be, in the end it was just a bunch of people talking to each other.

Maybe it's just me, but I need more than that. I need more than just seeing people on stage talking to each other to really get engaged. I need excitement. I need action. I need swordfights.

That was the moment when I realised what the problem was. There just weren't enough swordfights in these plays. I want to hear the clang of metal on metal. I want to hear cries of "en-guarde!" I want to be as enthralled as I am in that amazing scene in the Princess Bride where Westley fights Inigo ("I have a secret to tell you - I'm not left-handed" - I love that).

Of course, when I settled down to write my own stories, I had to be as good as my word. I couldn't very well complain about boring plays without swordfights if I ended up writing boring stories without swordfights. That's why I was really pleased when I was able to insert swordfights into not just one but two of my novels. And even as I scan ideas for new novels, I'm constantly thinking, "How can I insert a swordfight in here?"

And before I finish, I just have to throw in one more thing that I think is kind of cool. I actually have first-hand expertise when it comes to swordfighting, because I used to work with a former Australian fencing champion. I even got a chance to put on fencing gear and have a bit of a spar with them. It was kind of frightening actually. I kept on asking if I could run away a bit more. Luckily, she wasn't too rough with me.

Have a great week, full of excitement and derring-do. 

Saturday, 6 September 2014

End of Summer 2014 - New Visions

Today I interrupt my regular stream of conscious nonsense for a really important (and kind of cool) announcement.

Just over a year ago, I first entered into a contractual arrangement with Evolved Publishing. No, that's not the announcement, that's old news. Since then, it's been really exciting to see what a great job they've done with my first children's picture book, Thomas and the Tiger-Turtle, and to get to know this fantastic team of writers, editors and artists. No, that's not the news either.

The really cool news is that Evolved is currently running a fundraising campaign through Indiegogo. The title of this campaign is End of Summer 2014 - New Visions and there are some fantastic packages on offer.

The options range from $2.00 all the way up to $500. At the lower end, there are some really great ebooks available. At the higher end, there are some amazing packages featuring a range of hardcopy children's and adult books (including Thomas and the Tiger-Turtle of course).  And at the absolute top of the line, there is the opportunity to receive a copy of every ebook produced by Evolved Publishing. That's right, every single one. And these are not just any books. These are the cream of the crop when it comes to independent publishing. Every single one is carefully vetted and then edited with love and care. I can speak to my own personal experience on that.

So hopefully lots of you out there will be happy to support a fantastic organisation giving lots of great writers an opportunity they might not otherwise have had, and in the process releasing lots of wonderful stories for the world to read. If that's not a big enough reward, the terrific book packages available should be.

Make sure to check out the End of Summer 2014 - New Visions page for more information.