5 things a writer should know

This is the first in a series of fun articles I’m writing. It’s called Fives, and is simply 5 things you might not know or might find interesting! I’ll be posting 1 or 2 a week, so here’s the first one: 5 things a writer should know…

5) Reading is important.
It’s something a lot of writers don’t do, but it’s one of the most important things. Reading gives you the tools to write – so how can you expect to be a good writer if you don’t want to read?

4) You don’t have to be traditional.
The old ideas of writing aren’t as important as finding a voice you’re comfortable with. And writing itself doesn’t have to be traditional either. Want to write with someone else? Try a program like GoogleDocs or ZohoWriter for real-time collaboration!

3) Know the language.
Knowing language doesn’t mean having a degree in English. Rather it’s understanding the tools, how things sound; if you want to write, you have to know how, after all.

2) Hook the reader.
The beginning is your first impression on the reader; get it right. Often a reader looks at the first few paragraphs to see if the story interests them, so draw them in, keep them reading.

1) Stay true to the idea.
When you’re writing you should always be direct. If you’re true to the idea, you’re more likely to be original, and to connect with your reader. Why embellish? You’ll only lose the impact.

When did rehab become the "in thing"?

There’s been something about Britney Spears in the news every day this past week; feels like it too. I don’t want to ask if anyone even cares anymore, but aren’t the media going too far with this? It can’t help someone who is self-destructing to see every second of it being analysed on TV. And what’s all this about her parents and friends needing to force her to get help? Yes, they should help, but Spears is 25; they can’t force her to do anything. It’s hypocritical of the media; they say celebrities should be role models, but then can’t have any power in their lives. Unfortunately a part of being in the public eye is having the power to ruin your own life.

A lot of the interest here is voyeuristic, I think; it’s like watching a train wreck – we’re horrified, but can’t look away. It appeals to us on a base level, that it could be us, and it reassures us that we’ve made the right decisions. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why there was so much interest in Anna Nicole Smith’s death as well; the tragedy, her bizarre life, the drama. It’s probably not a coincidence that as Smith’s death was fading, the Spears story broke; one human drama to follow another.

I must admit, when I first heard about the thing with Britney Spears, I thought it was an attempt at career reinvention that had gone wrong. After months of criticism for partying and indecent behaviour, it would make sense that if she wanted to reinvent her career, she’d want to reinvent her image as well. That was the head-shaving, and I’m still not convinced that wasn’t for publicity. But since then everything has really spiralled out of control. And now she’s supposed to be in rehab again.

I don’t understand this trend of treating rehab as a trivial matter. Anyone who has survived an addiction will tell you it’s a hard, difficult slog – anything but trivial. Yet you wouldn’t know that. Celebrities seem to be checking in to rehab at will and it’s being glorified by E! News and the media. Would they all just wake up to reality? Not only are they setting a bad example, they’re treating something very serious with utter disdain. It’s gone from Mel Gibson and Robin Williams being treated for alcoholism, to Linsay Lohan, Kate Moss, Ashley Judd in the past, and now even singer Robbie Williams. And Mia Freedman’s column in The Sun-Herald said that Isaiah Washington from Grey’s Anatomy was admitted to rehab for homophobia. To my knowledge there’s no 30-day program which can help you get over homophobia. Taking an issue like that and making a mockery out of it is deplorable.

What worries me is that this is going to change the way we view addictions in society. Suddenly flirting with drugs, alcohol, sex, racism won’t mean anything; we’ll always be able to get “help”. And if we lose our way, we just go back. But rehab is serious; getting over life-changing abuses, putting your life back together again, is one of the hardest things anybody can do. To treat that trivially and make it socially acceptable is awful; having no respect for the people who struggle with it is even worse.

I hope people like Britney Spears who need help get it; but they should know that if they use something as serious as rehabilitation for publicity, then their careers are over. Some people will think it’s cool, but others will remember how they didn’t take it seriously, how shallow they were, and we won’t forget it.

Different generational views

Just finished reading an interesting essay by David Malouf called Made in England. It was published in 2003 as a Quarterly Essay, examining our relationship with Britain and how it’s changed throughout history. Malouf’s thesis is that Australia was created as a second England left to follow its own direction, and that’s why he believes that without facing our own Britishness first, any republic based on the desire to make a “final break” with Britain will inevitably fail.

It’s an interesting essay, brilliantly written and still current given Amanda Vanstone’s recent Under Southern Stars and the republic debate leading into the next election. But I can’t help thinking that a lot of what you take from the essay depends on your generational views. Much of the essay reminded me of someone remembering Australia’s past and transcribing those same feelings to a changing Australia. Where some people might see the changing of street names and restaurants in the 50s as a sign of growing American influence, my generation would see that more as an example of the Small World theory. And someone from the 70s might see it differently again.

Though it’s an essay primarily dealing with the changing cultures of Australia and Britain, it features America often as well. Malouf began writing the essay in Washington, at the beginning of the Iraq war, and parts of the essay focus on the differences in language between Australia, England and America. Malouf suggests that the American colonies were founded on a different kind of English than that in Australia or Britain; more passionately evangelical, “deeply imbued with the religious fanaticism and radical violence of the time”. The result of this, mixed with feelings over slavery, still echoes today in America’s rhetoric and world-view. Malouf is probably right (as we can see with the Axis of Evil, etc), but it doesn’t feel entirely correct to me either. Language is an expression of consciousness, not the cause of it; so while America’s language may still echo that feeling, to me it comes more from those beliefs inherent in society. In a country where belief is dominant, it’s much more likely (perhaps even predetermined) that a populace and its leaders would develop a world-view based on their moral center. I think that’s what we see with the US.

In fact, it was the sections on language that I found the most difficult to understand. Malouf says (p 44) “language is the history and experience of the men and women who, in their complex dealings with the world, made it; but it is itself one of the makers of that history… it is also said and changed by what is said in it.” Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t agree with that. Language comes from a person’s history and experience, as I said above – but the idea that language itself shapes history or plays a role in forming a nation’s consciousness doesn’t make sense to me. Language evolves; we see that with pidgins and creoles, languages slowly changing as they are exposed to outside influences. Or with general shortenings; names being abbreviated, New York City becoming (more commonly) New York, etc. That’s language evolving; but it takes an idea, event or theology to actually create something new in a language. Without 9/11, for instance, there’d be no concept of the War on Terror or the Axis of Evil, no coalition of the willing (as Malouf often mentions). It’s the event that shapes the language, not the other way round.

But again this comes back to generational views. Each generation sees society differently based on the themes and ideas of that time. I’ve often said that I see Australia as more of a land of second chances than anything else, and I think I’m aware of the stolen generation and other issues. I’ve been brought up in an age of technology which has brought the world closer together, and with the distance of time I look back on Australia’s past and see things slightly differently. That’s why I see a lot of what Malouf considers cultural changes as effects of the Small World theory. In the 50s what Malouf saw as streets and restaurants changing to reflect more American influence, to me reflects that it was after World War II and Australia was suddenly aware of a world outside of British influence – it makes sense we would try out new, different styles after such a step forward. Likewise, the idea that mass entertainment has divided the world; I think mass entertainment actually links the world, showing that our stories are basically the same, no matter your culture. It shows that language is translatable to different cultures, can have the same themes and myths that we all recognise and know in our hearts. And I think the Internet, in particular, has united the world, so that what was once distant and exotic is now much more real and tangible. With each layer of isolation we shed as a country, the world becomes smaller; we embrace the influence of different cultures and realise how familiar they really are.

That’s my view anyway, one I think a lot of my generation holds. It’s not that any particular view is wrong; it’s just that we see Australian in different ways, based on the themes and ideas we grew up with. In other words Australia means something different to each of us. That’s why Malouf’s essay is good; well-written, and even if you don’t agree it makes you consider things you might not have thought about, like how much we’ve exploited Britain since the beginning of our relationship rather than the other way round. It also makes me wonder how the next generation will see Australia. Will the issues they look back on be the asylum seekers and detention centres? AIDS and global warming? Will the world seem even smaller to them? And what will they think of us, knowing what we’ve left them? It’ll be interesting to find out.

Interpreting songs

Anyone heard “Happenin’ All Over Again” by the Young Divas? It’s been one of the big songs so far this year, a dance cover of the Lonnie Gordon song, so you probably have. It’s quite good; the Divas can sing. But there’s something about the song that’s been irritating me, how they interpret the song.

I’ve never thought of Happenin’ All Over Again as a happy song, but this version gives that impression. The four Divas belt the song out, and in the video clip they’re laughing, smiling, having fun. Maybe I’m missing something but there’s nothing in the lyric to be happy about! “Told me you’d changed/ looked in my eyes and said believe me/ then you broke my heart and deceived me/ when you said you never could leave me/ but it’s happenin all over again.” It’s like the message doesn’t matter as long as you can dance to it.

Maybe it seems like a small thing but they’re reinterpreting a song for a generation who haven’t heard it before, with a different message. I have a problem with that. And it’s happening with a lot of artists right now. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s lack of experience. Sometimes I think that’s apparent with shows like Idol. The people can sing, but often they can’t express the lyric and message of the song, can’t make the song believable. The four Divas are all ex-Idols (one even the winner in 2005). Also maybe there’s an image-thing here as well, maintaining the right look and sound. Maybe the content of the song is secondary.

Anyway, it’s just something that bugs me when I hear the song. Apart from that the song isn’t too bad, though. Guess in the end it just makes me like artists like KT Tunstall and Sarah Blasko all the more.

Rabbits to cure North Korea's food shortage?

North Korea Hops to Giant-Rabbit Breeding

I saw this report on Nightline on Sky News the other night, which was a much stronger report. I think it’s awful. First to breed rabbits to such unnatural sizes can’t be healthy for the rabbits (their bones?), and then to do that purely for animal husbandry? To eat them and make money? If this was genetic engineering people would be outraged. Why aren’t they now? This seems no less natural to me.

What right do we have to do this? It may help people in North Korea, but not much – they need more than just empty protein to survive. To me it’s like we’re picking and choosing which animals we choose to be our livestock and that’s awful. Don’t we already have a big enough impact on the populations of cows and sheep (not to mention the world itself)? Do we really need to add rabbits to that as well? It’s not like these are pests or vermin, or cattle bred for this; it’s forced-breeding. They’re creating a new breed, a new species of rabbit especially for it. I think that’s terrible.

Maybe there’s a German version of PETA who could intervene? I’ll have to look and find out. Maybe one voice, my voice, doesn’t count for a lot, but it’s something.

Profile: CJ Levinson

CJ in ArgyleInterests: Reading, writing, history, mythology, movies, music, cricket, tennis.

Favourite Movies: The Cider House Rules, Blade Runner, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, Finding Forrester, The Green Mile, The Man Who Cried, Pan’s Labyrinth, Lost in Translation.

Favourite Music: (pop/rock) U2, Coldplay, SavageGarden, The White Stripes, Tina Arena, Sarah McLachlan, Fleetwood Mac, Crowded House, Joni Mitchell, KT Tunstall, Sarah Blasko (scores) John Williams, Michael Kamen (R.I.P.), Alan Silvestri, Vangelis, Rachel Portman, Howard Shore.

Favourite Books: Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear, The Green Mile by Stephen King, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

On writing: I like the initial creation of a story most, when the characters and plot come to life for the first time. I write by hand and I write four to five pages a day. The story starts to come together when I’m editing it. I’ve become much better at editing, looking back at my earlier stories. I enjoy that part of it more now.

On ideas: Sometimes something will just jump out at me from a magazine or newspaper, but usually I’ll start with the characters and try to develop an interesting setting that would impact them or society; the impact of a new technology or drug, etc. I also read a lot; if you don’t read, you can’t write.

On the future: I’d love to have a novel published. I’ve had 10 small publications so far and interest from several agents. Realistically I’m still a long way from that; maybe when I’m 27 (another 4 years or so) I’ll be ready to send more of my work away. I find it difficult looking back at my early work now… something like Monica Davis shows how far I’ve come since A Glimpse of the Future.

On the world: I’d like to be optimistic, but it’s hard to be optimistic right now. Ever since 9/11 the world’s been a different, scarier place, and it’s hard to see that changing. The Terror War touches us all; through our televisions, the Internet, on trains and buses and planes, at security terminals and shopping malls. You can argue whether the war is being fought the right way (and much of it is a mess), but the most important thing to remember is to make sure we don’t lose ourselves in the process; give away too many of our freedoms and what do we have left to fight for? The problem is this isn’t just a Terror War, it’s an age of fear. We live in a time when terrorism, abductions, paedophilia, drugs, AIDS, etc. are more visible than ever, brought home every minute, every day by 24 hour news… it paralyses people, and an irresponsible media covering terror for ratings doesn’t help anyone.

On Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: Federer is a joy to watch and is probably my favourite player of the last 30 years. He makes shots no one would dream of making and carries himself so well, on and off the court. I’d love to see Federer win the French Open, but it’s great seeing Nadal doing so well now; he deserves every accolade and their rivalry is good for the sport. Nadal seems  to be getting stronger and better and he seems a real chance for the Grand Slam, which would be a wonderful achievement. Hopefully their rivalry will keep Federer hungry in this new stage of his career as well – the last thing we want is for him to quit early like Borg.

On the Ashes: The 2006-07 series was disappointing after all of the hype. I certainly didn’t pick a 5-0 result to Australia, although obviously I was glad with the win. England never seemed like they could beat Australia and in the end it became more of a farewell for Langer, Warne and McGrath. I imagine this series will be different. I doubt we’ll get a series even half as good as the 2005 series but both Australia and England have shown signs of improvement recently after lackluster performances in 2008. Johnson has come of age as an all-rounder and Strauss seems to be providing stability as captain to an England side that badly needs it. I think it will be a good series but Australia will win 3-1. The battle between Johnson and Pietersen will be particularly interesting.

Lisey's Story

Just finished reading Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. What a great book. So many people think King is a horror writer, but he’s so much more than that; he’s a storyteller, a writer who creates vivid, real characters, and Lisey’s Story is a beautiful, sad love story.

What I admire the most about King, though, is his gift with language. He creates scenes so well and he understands how language is unique to people: the references between family, friends, lovers that only they can know. He gets the small things right, and that’s what brings his stories to life.

I wish more writers would pay attention to language, narrative. There’s such a trend of visual writing right now that feels hollow to me. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum, writers using “big” vocabularies to describe simple settings, making scenes more important than they really are. Urgh! It’s depressing.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a good read, pick up a copy of Lisey’s Story. You’ll see how good books should be written: with a story, a heart, and some of the more real characters in recent fiction.

As Scott would say – SOWISA, babyluv.

Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn

nighttrain.jpgI have to admit, I have something of a love-hate relationship with Timothy Zahn. His last few books have been fun science fiction reads; Angelmass was something of a throwback to the classic Golden Age of SF, while The Green and the Gray was an interesting look at the post-9/11 world, mixed with a science fiction mystery. I’ve also read some of his more military science fiction (Conquerors’ Pride) along with some individual novels, which have felt more juvenile. His latest novel, Night Train to Rigel, has some interesting ideas but in the end falls somewhere between the two.

Night Train begins when a young man drops dead at the feet of Frank Compton, a former government agent now working freelance. The dead man was carrying a ticket for the Trans-Galactic Quadrail, a rail-system that connects the known galaxy… a ticket made out to Compton himself. Intrigued, Compton decides to use the ticket and heads for the Rigel system, but before he arrives he is approached by an agent of the Spiders, the mysterious aliens who run the Quadrail. The Spiders believe someone is plotting to attack the entire Quadrail network, using battleships smuggled through the Quadrail itself – something which should be impossible. Compton agrees to try and find the identity of their enemy, but soon learns that discovering the truth of the mystery – amidst lies, deception and danger on all sides – will be no easy task…

The whole premise of Zahn’s novel is the Quadrail and it’s an interesting premise. It’s often thought that were the galaxy ever to be populated, only the rich and famous could travel to the new worlds because of the expense, creating a new class-divide in human society. The Quadrail, though, means that anyone can travel to the stars, catching the Quadrail as simply as a train, and so all peoples (and races) have spread throughout the galaxy. Because only the Spiders know how the Quadrail works, they are able to ban all weapons and illegal content from passing through the Quadrail, creating peace. In that way it’s this idea of travel in the future that is the main character of the novel. The Quadrail feels real; from the metallic stations to the the hyperspace journey through the Tube, the Quadrail feels textured and believable. Perhaps that’s because this kind of travel hasn’t been overused in science fiction previously, but the idea works well and holds the whole story together.

The main problem I had with Night Train, though, was that a lot of it felt like parts of books Zahn had written before. The opening scene in Night Train is similar to the opening of The Icarus Hunt: in Icarus Jordan McKell notices three people waiting to jump him as he leaves a tavern, while in Night Train Compton sees the messenger watching him from the side of a cab. Likewise in Icarus McKell was a man with a hidden past, and in Night Train Compton too has his own mysterious agenda. And even the way Compton is not able to trust Bayta, the Spiders’ agent, is reminiscent of relationships between characters in Icarus and Angelmass. It feels like a novel of recycled ideas – and lazy writing.

I also found it hard to believe the idea that Earth is supposed to be so advanced, considering such a short amount of time has passed since the present day. Putting ideas of the Singularity aside, it’s supposed to be several decades into the future, yet humans are already using the Quadrail to colonise other planets. Perhaps gaining technology from other races has helped them, but being so advanced doesn’t feel believable. It seems more suited to a novel from the 50s, and a lot of Night Train feels like that: a throwback romp across the galaxy where trains go to the stars daily and strange worlds and aliens are more important than believable characters and science.

Still, Night Train is enjoyable if you can get past its flaws. People who aren’t as familiar with Zahn’s past work might want to check it out, as well as anyone looking for a fast-paced SF thriller. Just remember to pick up Angelmass as well to see how good Zahn can be when he gets it right.