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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A thought on proofing

I use TextAloud to convert what I write to mp3 files, so I can listen to them for checking.   Reading involves seeing what is there and guessing some of the gaps, which is what makes proofing do hard.

So here I am in Chicago, where things are not always what you expect.  This is why I always take the Goodman Theater to be the Goddamn Theatre, and the DuSable Bridge to be the Disabled Bridge, or  that's my theory, anyway.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Dedication OR I wish I had written that

William J. Lines is (or was?) a West Australian, a writer of lovely history, and I have just been mining his tale of Georgiana Molloy, called An All Consuming Passion, for a short piece in a more general book.  Because I had already done a fairly extensive coverage, he filled out the picture for me and clarified a few oddities and misconceptions, but without offering any extra meat that I could use—but he provided a delightful read.

All the way through, I admired and enjoyed his prose, and then I came upon this gem:

"I also wish to thank the archivists at the Cumbria Record Office, Carlisle, England, whose institution epitomises the very best Anglo-Saxon traditions of openness, access, and cooperation. Despite a decade and more of ignoble Thatcherite economic rationalism, which attempted to rob public life of its purpose and community of its bonds, the spirit and means of free enquiry endure."

Bravo, Mr. Lines!!

It's a book well worth finding and reading, even before you get to that on pages 335-6.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The age of the short put-down is not dead

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why, I cannot tell—
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

Legend hath that poet Tom Brown was set to translate a Martial epigram from Latin, by the Dean of Christchurch who was later Bishop of Oxford. You can read about it here.

Someone I know very well (no names, no pack-drill) once engraved a quatrain on a bench in the Chemistry lecture theatre, a celebration of Joe Broe, our lecturer and a very dry but thorough old stick. It read:

J. J. Broe
Never said no
That is of course unless
He'd plainly first said yes.

Now this was in the mould of the clerihew, a form developed by E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley. These usually featured some nonsense, but also reflected on the career of the subject:

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy
Because he lived under the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Then W. H. Auden offered his set of 61 clerihews now collected as 'Academic Graffiti', and one of the three slips of paper in my Collected Auden allows me to open up there.  Here's one:

Mr. Robert Liston
Used the saw like a piston
He was that elated
When he amputated.

There are some more here.

But nobody writes clerihews any more. Mine My friend's in the lecture theatre was one of the last of its kind. But the short put-down lives on, even in apocryphal ones like the exchange between Margot Asquith and Jean Harlowe, when Harlow supposedly called Asquith Mah-got, and was corrected with a frosty observation that "the t is silent—as in Harlowe".

The short put-down has emerged again.  I recently discovered the Green Tea Party blog, which is a hoot.  Today, came a "tweet of the day" from a comedian whom I have hitherto not rated highly, Will Ferrell. It reads:

Dear scissors, I feel your pain . . . . Nobody wants to run with me either.  Sincerely, Sarah Palin.

Like all innovations, Twitter has been loudly slammed by those who don't understand it and don't want to understand it.  I don't really understand Twitter either, but I'm waiting for Twitter and its users to determine what it is.

Recall that the Internet was seen as a way of sharing scientific data and not what it is now, and one version has Bell inventing the telephone to deliver sermons to multiple churches.  New technology rarely ends up being what the inventors thought it would be: the users decide that.

Users like Mr. Ferrell are now making the key decisions about Twitter by the ways they use it.  Come back to this thought in 2020, and see if I was evidencing any sort of 2020 vision—or if I got it wrong like Sir William Preece, who thought (allegedly) that messenger boys were better than telephones

And I think I will need to re-assess Mr. Ferrell.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Some brilliant news for Adele K. Thomas

When we set out to do The Monster Maintenance Manual, we had a competition for a new (that is to say, unpublished) illustrator. Pier 9 spotted about a dozen others who will end up getting a gig, one way or another, but a few really stood out, and one of them was Adele K. Thomas.  We made an excellent choice!
Adele's version of the Sinking Goose.

In the excitement of the short lists announcement the other day, it didn't occur to me to look at the short list for the Crichton Awards, mainly because I didn't know much about them, because pictures aren't really my thing.

Well, if you haven't already looked, and you happen to be solid teak from the neck up, you may not have guessed yet about the joyous discovery I made today: Adele K. Thomas is on the short list!

I know something of three of the other books that are there, so the competition will be intense, but in my estimation, Adele is in there with a good chance.

Brava, Adele!

And good luck!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Another piece of tsunami wisdom

I am always on the look-out for parables, and Al Lee passed on to me a link to an AP report about the Japanese tsunami. There's more to it than what I am extracting here, but there was one aspect: tablets which say "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point."

Now there's a curious twist to this, as the report points out. If any of the tablets have been placed too low, then sooner or later a tsunami will carry them away, and the surviving ones will stand as testaments to the safety of their locales.

It's a savage form, but the parallel to the rather more subtle odds-shading of Darwinian evolution are pretty obvious.  I can work with that at some point, if only in a radio essay. As that link reveals, I do those as well.

From the Frascati-Rome train, 2010.
Sometimes the wisdom of past generations is complete rubbish (think phlogiston, the impossibility of heavier-than-air flight or bad smells causing disease), but as a rule, even those approximations have a message for us, if we squint and look at them the right way.  Whatever the past generations believed, it didn't kill them outright, and it may well have contributed to their survival, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.

French colonial hospital, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Take these Eucalyptus trees, snapped from the train while travelling from Frascati to Rome. Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG was an Australian botanist who features in Curious Minds.

I have long known that Eucalyptus trees were exported for their disease-fighting powers to quell malaria by their nice smell, while the reality is that these thirsty trees lowered the water table and dried up the swamps and marshes where mosquitoes bred.  I have snapped these trees in Cambodia, and on Kefalonia and and Cyprus, playing the same role.

Mature river red gum, Argostoli, Kefalonia
It was only last week that I found that the chief distributor of seeds around the world was Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG.  You hunt down the bits for long enough, and in the end, they fall into place.

That is how my parable of the Japanese stone tablets will eventually find a home. A bit like those unbiquitous eucalypts.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A quick one: two links that fascinated me.

Lava flow on Kilauea, in the dusk.
Some years ago, I headed off to Ole Miss, the university at Oxford, Mississippi, for a conference.  Because the haul from Sydney to Mississippi is quite a long trip eastwards (always the worst for jet lag), I decided to break the trip in Hawaii, and slipped over to Hilo, so I could have a look at the lava flows on Kilauea, and the observatories on Mauna Kea.
Me, my hat and the lava flow.  It was close
enough to frizzle the hairs on my legs.

Then I discovered that the Pacific Tsunami Museum was located there, and spent a couple of useful hours there.  I had always found tsunamis interesting, but I came away finding them awe-inspiring and fascinating.  That said, I don't really want to be close to one.  But if ever I need to write about one, I know the sort of stuff I will draw on, thanks to my friend Robin posting a link today to a personal account of the Japanese tsunami.

The author is an American who has been living in Japan as a teacher of English, but look, just read it, OK?

The second link came from the same email list.  I need to explain here that I am a social climber: I hang out with librarians. That means I have a few rudiments of what cataloguing is about: not enough to qualify me as a shelver's second deputy assistant, but I have a sense for it. I suspect that even without it, you would enjoy this contribution from Lois. It is a blog entry called 'A digression on literary categories' at the blog Making Light. A word of advice: read the 200+ comments, because they are severely hilarious.
Go on! What are you waiting for? There's nothing to see here!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Wherein I get a small award

Today, the Children's Book Council of Australia presented its Notable Books list. My The Monster Maintenance Manual was listed as one of the notable books of 2010 for Younger Readers. It was always going to be difficult to get even that far, given that I didn't really fit the categories, and there was an excellent field, so that was as far as I got, but at least the publishers get to affix a sticker to the book.
During the day, I came up with an excellent new theory: dragons hate chocolate.  Consider: every person I know loves chocolate, and none of them has ever been attacked by a dragon.  It follows that all the chocolate haters have been eaten by dragons, which shy off at the mere hint of the cocoa bean.  Nobody alive has ever seen a dragon, because since the chocolate haters have been eliminated, there has been no food for dragons, and they have all moved to another planet.

Don't stop eating the chocolate, because if they come back, you will be dragon droppings, quicker than you can say "brown bread!"
This is what I mean about where ideas come from.  I estimate that if I can come up with 31 other theories like this, I can have an entertaining book.  If I don't think of any others, I will write a popular diet book about the central role of theobromine as an antidraconic agent.

This will reap me a fortune, because it tells people to eat something they like, but dresses the advice up in New Age gibberish.

Note: the above text is entirely fictitious, and any similarity to any existing dietary manuals is purely coincidental.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Where do the ideas come from? part 2

There are probably three main aspects for me when a book is emerging, brewing or developing.

The first is having a temporary obsession that leads me to burrow after information.  Robyn Williams once described me as a "fact-fossicker", a term that I have proudly claimed as my own. Recently, I even fossicked the origins of that quintessentially Australian term, working through the marvellous source of historical newspapers that is to be found at TROVE. As one of the Trove volunteers (there must be thousands of us), I play a part by correcting the OCR renditions of digital images of articles, and adding tags to help other searches.

As of today, I have tagged 133 articles as <early use of language>, with a further tag to indicate which Australian word or term I was targeting: you will find bushranger, sheoak, damper, bandicoot, cobber, bodgie, widgie, dinky di, on the wallaby, bonzer, gibber, death adder (a corruption of the Biblical 'deaf adder', and not the other way around), swag, squatter, bludger, billy and kookaburra all marked—but it all began with 'fossick'.  (You can see all of these, by the way, just by searching in Trove for the phrase "early use of language", like that, inside double quotation marks.)

One of my lucky finds.
Right now, I have no direct plans to use any of my finds about early Australian language, though it will be handy if/when I get into the Cornish Boy (mentioned elsewhere), and I have placed the information in the public domain so that others can also gain from it, but at any stage, something I find might start off from some of that.  That's how temporary obsessions get to have life breathed into them, but the original plan was just to keep an eye out for early uses while digging for other stuff.

You can never tell which bits will prove to be not just amusing, like the "rat guillotine" above, so the only sensible solution is to store it in some machine-searchable way.

I'm also a member of Project Wombat, a group of people who like to solve "stumpers", difficult questions.  Burrowing for information is deep in my genes.  My (currently stalled) plan to do a book an misplaced genius and mad inventions just emerged from having the sort of ratbag mind that enjoyed digging up oddities. Even though there are no immediate plans for that one, I keep spotting and noting ideas that might improve it.

The second aspect is storing useful information in such a way that I can track it back to source, later.  I mainly use spreadsheets, which all take the same formatting, but I'll come back to the wild and woolly ways I use spreadsheets some other time. Suffice it to say that the people who wrote Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3 would never have expected the antics I get up to.

Still, it's people finding new ways to use technology that pushes it forward. Mr. Bell never expected people to hook up the descendants of Babbage's Difference Engine with his telephone wires, any more than Time Berners-Lee could have anticipated that I will be doing an electronic check-in for my flight next week, using the internet—or that I would have booked my hotel online.

The third involves building up logically—and keeping all the bits.

Being logical first: I was "taught writing" by English teachers who manifestly were not practitioners, but they all loved to drum into us the stuff that had been drummed into them at university, about the motivation of characters and the flow of the action.  Coming from talking marionettes, these wooden words meant little, but I can see now that in their inarticulate way, they were on the money. A story only works if there is a clear logic to it.  This applies to both fiction and non-fiction.

This morning, I have taken time off from the story of a part-eater called Bitz who keeps losing weight, and in the end, her friends Kilimanjaro (a troll) and Papagena (a calculator imp) solve her problem. She has been using all the bits and parts in her pantry to make things, and so Bitz has forgotten to eat. I use logic there at all points: these little stories have 17 parts, and I write the first eight or so, based on notes, then I write the conclusion (one or two parts) and then join the ends by filling in the blanks. Right now, I have five blank frames to go, and notes enough to fill about nine or ten, so some pruning will be needed.

These short stories are, in a Dodgsonian sense, high-grade nonsense, but there is a total sense to the structure and to the names: all imps take their names from operatic heroines (and Papagena may be Brunhilde before this sees the light of day—and an editor may tell me it's all too fluffy and to drop all the high-art stuff). That's how I work.

In the end, a number of the notes scribbled around the story frame will end up not being used. Word-plays will miss the cut, plot-lines will be dropped, but when I take the draft and paste it into the final collection, the left-overs will be saved.

I have a bad habit of scribbling notes on scrap paper, the backs of bills or envelopes, and then later, dropping those into the recycling.  As a rule, it may be six months before I recall that there was something in my logic structure that needs revision. So anything that isn't in a spreadsheet is in a notebook, with dates to show what was when.

This makes me sound amazingly organised, but that is only because I am extremely disorganised, but savvy enough to see that this is so.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Where do the ideas come from?

I was asked the other day where my ideas come from, and it struck me that there isn't a single answer to that, because some of them leap on me out of the blue, some are long-term temporary obsessions, others are thrust upon me.

Let's take the way I started writing adult/general non-fiction, the genre known as narrative non-fiction, which one of my favourite second-hand bookshops calls "History of Things".

I had a call, sometime in 2000 from Ian Bowring, who had been my publisher at Longman-Cheshire. He had moved to Allen and Unwin and was casting around for somebody who could write in that genre.
My first book for Big People.

"We'd like you to do a book about malaria, scurvy or sugar," he said. I gave him good reasons why malaria and scurvy might not be good ideas to tackle (I was effectively a full-time science journalist in those days, and knew what was happening in the research world).

But I did have a curious riddle, posed by a line in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, and I told him I had found the answer, and could hang a book on it.

Other books are commissions. A freelance editor I had worked with passed my name on to another publisher, and they asked if I could whip up a treatment on "Lawn".  An outline and a sample chapter, they said, cash money to be paid, and a contract if they managed to sell the idea.

It was only years later that I twigged that all the odd editors who came offering "fixer" work, which I always took, knew each other.  I had, without realising it, got a bit of a name for being reliable.  It paid off!

So I did the work on The Lawn, got the pay, and nothing happened. The chap who asked me to do the work left the companyOther works came and went, then out of the blue, they sold the idea to an overseas publisher and it was a goer.
Now for the odd part. I always do interviews on radio when asked, and I did a promo for the book in a hook-up to New Zealand.

When that went to air, I had an email from a New Zealand lady who explained that she had the paperwork to prove that she was nuts (I think she meant she was bipolar, but no matter, she had and interesting idea, and she presented it in a sensible way).

Having only heard an interview and read a review, she said that if I could do a social history of the lawn, I ought to do one on fences.
My first reaction: "daft idea".  My second: "Hmmm". My third (this was over a couple of weeks): "Naah, it doesn't have legs."

Australia's 5000-km "Dog Fence",
near Lake Eyre
Now I'm fairly certain it would work. If I expand "fences" to barriers of all sorts, so I can add the Great Wall of China, the walls of Istanbul, the Maginot Line, the Berliner Mauer, Hadrian's Wall, the dog-proof fence, the rabbit-proof fence, barriers in Israel/Palestine and the southern USA, slip-rails and the fencing requirements placed on squatters and selectors, dry-stone walls, the effects of barbed wire, stuff like that, there may be something in it. Along the way, I plan to visit the world's only barbed wire museum. Not this trip, though.

Hill End, New South Wales, visited in relation to my planned study of gold rushes. No rails, no nails, just posts, palings and wire.

Right now, 'Fences' is an idea that I'm toying with, but it's on my list of eight major books (and 26 booklets) that I want to do before I hang up my pen.  I'm visiting places, taking notes, gathering pictures and ideas, just in case—and even when I'm after something else, I keep an eye out for interesting barriers.

Next time, I'll say something about finding out, but here is where I list my favourite research sources.