Reading “Doctor No”

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I used to think that the James Bond novels and short stories were merely mass-produced potboilers that were churned out by Ian Fleming in order to keep him in the sybaritic lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. Then I decided to read some of the books. Turns out he’s actually a very good writer in terms of his descriptions and plotting. What I can’t swallow, though, is some of the preposterous detail he includes in a story with the hope that readers are so engrossed that they won’t notice that the villains he has come up with are like stick figures. Bond himself is not difficult to work out. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures. Sex and violence seem to be the main ones, which is why the books are so easily adaptable to the big screen, I guess.

I recently finished reading “Doctor No.” I’d read it before years ago but this time I marveled anew at both Fleming’s skill in description and his ineptitude at creating believable villains. As he is recovering from being poisoned on a previous case, James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two MI6 operatives. His superior, M, views it as a rest cure, but Bond, it seems, is determined to whip the whole mission up into a cause célèbre that will prove to M that he still has what it takes to be a pain in the ass to master criminals the world over. Archvillain Doctor No has an installation on the island of Crab Key for mining guano – yes, you read that right, bird-shit-shoveling. He is very secretive and anyone who goes to the island is never seen or heard from ever again. Predictably, Bond goes to the island. There he meets the love interest, a young lady with the unlikely name of Honeychile Rider, Honey for short. Among her many accomplishments she seems, for no apparent reason, to have developed a severe clothing allergy, because throughout the book she tediously appears in various situations wearing various combinations of nothingness and scraps of cloth, much to the delight of Bond and no doubt the reading public. After being chased around the Island of Shit by an outlandish flame-throwing armored swamp buggy in the shape of a dragon (sigh), Bond and Honey are captured by the mysterious Doctor No. No treats them to a sumptuous dinner, during which he regales them with his own brand of megalomania, which includes ruining the U.S. nuclear arms program, developing his own weapons and, of course, ruling the world.

Marketing “How to Write an Essay.”

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Last year I wrote a book on the subject of: how to write an essay. So far, sales of the book have been rather modest. That’s despite the 5-star review some kind person gave it on True, it’s a good review, especially since it’s apparently from a teacher, but how do I get other people to give positive reviews? Well, by getting more people to buy the book, obviously. But how can I do that when I’m not a college lecturer or tutor and have virtually zero contact with students? How can I get access to students and persuade them to buy a book on essay-writing? I sat and mulled over this question for quite some time.

It occurred to me, looking at that review, that mention was made of “writing instructors.” That seemed like a good place to start. So I looked up the 10 biggest universities and colleges in Michigan, my home state, and eventually tracked down the person who runs the Writing Center in each establishment. Most universities and colleges have writing centers where students can go for advice and help about how to write essays, and where they can learn to polish up their punctuation and grammar. I composed a letter to each incumbent and sent it, along with a copy of the book, asking them to recommend it to students. There was a marginal increase in sales, but still no move to shuffle my book to the top of the bestsellers list. Of course, a lot depends on the time of year, or, more accurately, where students were in terms of their semesters, since many essays are set at the end of a semester or academic year.

Sir Andrew Motion’s 10 Rules for Writing

Andrew Motion, John Milton, novelists, Oscar Wilde, playwrights, poets, Uncategorized
Sir Andrew Motion FRSL (born 26 October 1952) is an English poet, novelist, and biographer, who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009.
Here’s his list of advice for writers:
1.     Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organize your life accordingly.
Easier said than done. This piece of advice assumes that you live alone and are master of your own fate. I would have thought a prerequisite for this dictum would be deciding whether there was actually time in your schedule for writing in the first place. Sometimes, a writer finds him- or herself in a season in life where writing simply isn’t possible. For example, if you have several young children (or an elderly relative) to look after it might be out of the question during that particular period of your life. Conversely, if you do have some free time, you still might find yourself with no openings for writing because other less important matters take up your time, like watching three hours of TV per night. There are priorities that need to be worked out if you want to be a writer.
2.     Think with your senses as well as your brain.
I once tried thinking with my nose, but didn’t really get very far. In fact, I think I gave myself a nasal concussion.

The Authentic Voice

biography, C.S. Lewis, Oxford, Oxford History of the English Language, Uncategorized
 One of the best biographies I have ever read is: C.S. Lewis, The Authentic Voice by William Griffin. It is unlike any other biography that I have come across, in that it is not a continuous narrative of Lewis’s life, but rather a collection of chronological vignettes that together give a much more rounded picture of the man than would a traditional style of biography. Some of these snippets last for several pages, but many of them are short two- or three-paragraph descriptions on encounters he had with people, speaking engagements, books he was reviewing, students he was tutoring, walking trips he made with his friends, conversations he had with various people, his loves and his hates. It is a highly entertaining volume in which each chapter is a year of Lewis’s life from his inauguration into a teaching position at Oxford, in 1925, to his death in 1963. Nevertheless because it is broken into fragments of his life, the book can be dipped into anywhere.
The copy I have is somewhat dilapidated, so I guess I must have read it half a dozen times.  An example of the style of the little sections in the chapters is an episode involving a tutorial with a student who walked in late, snickering to himself. When Lewis asked him what was so funny, the guy answered, “I’ve just been walking through a graveyard and I saw the headstone of an atheist that read ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go!’ Quick as a flash Lewis responded, “I’ll bet he wishes now that that were true…”

Great-grandfather’s Poetry

 A while ago I was idly surfing through when I decided to do a search on my great-grandfather’s name: John Wellwood. He was a poet, writer, biographer and Minister of the Church of Scotland who lived from 1853 to 1919. I have in my possession a biography he wrote, that of Norman MacLeod, which was published under the Famous Scot Series in 1897. Norman Macleod (1812–1872) apparently was a Scottish clergyman and author. (Incidentally, John Wellwood’s brother-in-law, Professor William Herkless, of Glasgow University, also wrote one of the books in the series, a biography of Richard Cameron – an equally obscure Famous Scot). I also knew that John Wellwood had written at least one book of poetry. I used to have a copy of that book, but it seems to have vanished during one of the many house-moves we have pulled off over a period of thirty years. So I was interested to know if he had written any other books.
Sure enough, what I came up with was a poetry book that John Wellwood had written along with his best friend, Robert Kemp, entitled The Praise and Blame of Love. A good chunk of it is romantic poetry of one kind or another. But, occasionally, there are daring little pieces that must have been somewhat controversial at the time. For example, here is a poem called “The Curate’s Resignation” which I can’t help quoting in full:

Trollope’s Daily Grind

Charles Dickens, Chronicles of Barsetshire, novelist, Uncategorized, Victorian
Anthony Trollope (24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882) was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. In his day, he was as famous as Dickens. Among his best-loved works is a series of novels collectively known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which (unsurprisingly) revolves around the imaginary county of Barsetshire. He also wrote perceptive novels on political, social, and gender issues, and on other topical matters.
He says in his autobiography:
“It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour… This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year…”

Plagiarism, parody and parrotry

Alex Haley, Dark Laughter, Elizabethan sonnet, Faulkner, Harold Courlander, Hemingway, Nigel Watts, Roots, Sherwood Anderson, Teach Yourself Writing A Novel, The Torrents of Spring, the Waste Land, TS Eliot, Uncategorized
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” T.S. Eliot.
One of the things that is intriguing about what is taught in creative writing programs is how similar the advice is for would be novelists. For example, the structure of the novel can be broken down in to the following eight elements, as defined by Nigel Watts in his book Teach Yourself Writing A Novel:
1.     Stasis
2.     The Trigger
3.     The Quest
4.     The Surprise
5.     The Critical choice
6.     The Climax
7.     The Reversal
8.     The Resolution
I wonder how many people, using that structure, write novels that are, to all intents and purposes, identical to someone else’s.

What a novel idea!

England, Italy, London, Milan, Minnesota, novel writing, organized crime, outline, Psych, St. Paul, synopsis, Uncategorized
So far I have written six novels, each of which is a standalone book. Three of them take place in the St. Paul, Minnesota and three of them are located in Europe (one in a fictitious prison camp somewhere in England, one in London and one mostly in Milan, Italy). In the past few years I haven’t written any novels at all, but instead concentrated on nonfiction and poetry. Nevertheless, I have, from time to time, tried to come up with plots that might lend themselves to a full-length novel. Here are just a few of the possible contenders:
1.     A guy who is having a midlife crisis decides to quit his job and head off on a road trip across the USA. The story also involves his relationship with his father, whom he had always admired, until… he discovers a dark secret about him that changes his whole perspective. His route takes him through small towns and large cities and he has encounters with various people, including a number of weirdoes, criminals and crackpots. At one point he is held hostage during a bank robbery. The back story unfolds, as he travels, through the use of flashbacks.
Here it is unclear whether the story has “legs.” Is there enough of a basic plot to last a whole book? Possibly not. There would need to be several subplots tied to the main plot in order to make it credible as a 70k+ word novel. Also, the idea of a guys simply doing a road trip seems kind of aimless. He would need to be searching for something specific.

Kafka’s Daily Grind

Assicurazioni Generali, consumption, Franz Kafka, Uncategorized, Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Bohemia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a writer of novels and short stories and is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work, which combines elements of realism and fantasy typically features a lone protagonist faced with a bizarre or surrealistic predicament. His work explores the themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.
Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends, including his father, with whom he had a strained and formal relationship.

Michael Moorcock – 10 Rules for Writing

Bunyan, Byatt, Conrad, Enid Blyton, HL Brunswick, Lester Dent, Michael Moorcock, Uncategorized
Michael John Moorcock (born 18 December 1939) is an English writer, primarily of science fiction and fantasy, who has also published literary novels. He is best known for his novels about the character Elric of Melniboné, a seminal influence on the field of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s.
As editor of the controversial British science fiction magazine New Worlds, from May 1964 until March 1971 and then again from 1976 to 1996, Moorcock fostered the development of the science fiction “New Wave” in the UK and indirectly in the United States. His publication of Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad as a serial novel was notorious; in Parliament some British MPs condemned the Arts Council for funding the magazine.
In 2008, The Times newspaper named Moorcock in its list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” (Wikipedia)
Here is his advice to would-be authors on how to write.
1. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
According to Norstrom’s Alphabetical List of Famous Writers there are no writers between Bunyan and Byatt. The closest is H.L. Brunswick, author of the renowned “Nefarious Twelve” children’s series, whose oeuvre includes the wildly popular Nefarious Twelve Beat the Heck out of a Policeman. Brunswick was an unapologetic alcoholic and prominent member of the Friends of the Phlogiston Cowboy Society, who wrote almost thirty books for children including Nefarious Twelve Ruin a Perfectly Good Soufflé, Nefarious Twelve Bite the Hand that Fed Them and the ever-popular Nefarious Twelve Start World War III with a Balloon Whisk. Enid Blyton’s derivative Secret Seven Electrocute a Swan came along later and cornered the market in saccharine juvenile potboilers, thus ruining it for everyone else.