Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.

The Acronym and the Mnemonic

Sometimes I think I know English grammar inside and out. Other times, I stumble upon an aide memoire I’ve never heard of.

I was writing a story where I kept typing ‘Thamos’ in error instead of ‘Thomas’. Out of interest, I looked up ‘Thamos’ as I was sure there was someone with that name. There was: it was an 18th-century play called Thamos, King of Egypt.

However, the top search result defined it as an acronym for remembering conjuctive adverbs, namely ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Also’, ‘Meanwhile’, and ‘Otherwise’. The last letter of ‘THAMOs’ is in lowercase and seems intended simply to create a word.

I’ve no idea whether the folks at NoRedInk invented this acronym, but it was news to me. They also go on to give two others: ‘FANBOYS’ is for coordinating conjunctions while ‘SWABIs’ is for subordinating conjunctions.

This started me thinking about acronyms and mnemonics as a memory aid. I’m somewhat ambivalent about them. If carefully crafted, they do their intended jobs.

One that sticks out from high school Chemistry is ‘OILRIG’, meaning ‘Oxidisation is loss, reduction is gain.’ This works well because the initial letters always spell out a sentence with the words in the correct order.

But supposing you wanted to remember something in a non-linear order. Before Pluto was reclassified, you could recite the names of the bodies in our solar system with ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’.

This is great if you wish to name them all, but supposing you wanted to check the order of Uranus and Neptune, it would take a few seconds to find your place, even starting from the beginning.

Another weakness with this type of mnemonic is that you still need to remember the word that each initial letter stands for.

There are better methods. A classic one is the the method of loci – sometimes called a memory palace – using spatial awareness for easier recall. Here’s an academic description by the US National Library of Medicine.

This system is used extensively by Tony Buzan in his educational books. I read one of his publications when I was younger, and it’s a robust method that allows recall of items in any order, but I never persisted with it.

At present, I have no practical use for acronyms like ‘THAMOs’, ‘SWABIs’, or ‘FANBOYS’. However, I am amazed I’ve reached degree-level English without ever encourtering them, and I’m sure they’ll be of use to someone.

Arting About

I periodically remind people that I’m not a lifelong fiction writer nor poet. I started in 2010, when I was around 27 years old.

As such, I’ve now gained an decade of intensive experience that I reckon brings me up to a similar level compared to those who have been writing for far longer.

That said, I don’t ever want to be that writer who feels they’re too good to learn something new. When I took part in Imogen Stirling’s classes recently, I knew I could manage the work, yet I was still pushed in new directions that I wouldn’t have walked by myself, such as kennings and univocal poetry.

In the same spirit, I’ve been taking art lessons from my pal Ana Hine over the last couple of months, who is offering weekly classes via Patreon. This is a major deal for me because I’ve always had a mental block with art: I wouldn’t do it because my drawing wasn’t of a high standard, yet it wasn’t of a high standard because I wouldn’t draw.

I had a problem with the way I was taught at school. The focus was on making a finished work rather than going through the process or making a rough draft first. Yet that same criticism also applied to my poetry teaching. I should note that I’m talking about the 1990s, so their methods might have improved since then.

I have once before attempted drawing lessons with another pal, Jen Robson. Last year, she ran an afternoon class called Scared of the Paper, and my picture is still on her website. That was a great experience, and I learnt techniques that I’ve carried over to Ana’s lessons, such as correcting mistakes by adding lines rather than erasing them, and listening to music as I work.

However, I didn’t ride the wave of enjoyment and instead let the mental block build up again. Now, with being asked to stay indoors, I decided to give art another shot.

With six of Ana’s lessons under my belt, I’ve only once burst into tears and I’ve only once thrown away my eraser in frustration, so that’s progress. I’m still clouded by The Dread before I start, and it’s something I need to fight through.

When it comes to poetry, I no longer care whether people see my half-done work as I know I can go back and improve it. With art, by contrast, I sometimes can’t properly capture a particular scene and I don’t know how to fix it, so I’ve shown only Ana and my partner thus far.

Indeed, there’s only one drawing I’m willing to pull out in public just now. This is a drawing of a bus seat done while on the bus:

Sketch of bus seat
Sketch of bus seat

It’s a fluke that everything looks roughly the same here as it did in real life, so I need to work on achieving a decent image by skill rather than luck.

Be advised that today’s deviation from writing is a one-off event, and that this page will not turn into an art blog. Meanwhile, as I’m shining the spotlight on pals, Eilidh Morris is a visual artist who doing the opposite of me by including more spoken word in their practice.

The Middle of the Road

It can be hard to believe that that even well-known writers might only be one piece of work away from losing popularity.

Experience helps a lot, from knowing your particular audience to being aware of wider trends – not to mention fads – in contemporary tastes. However, there is no telling for sure how the public will react to the next offering.

A good way to look at this phenomenon is to consider the winners of the Booker prize. Here’s a list from 1969 to 2014, in reverse chronological order.

Only a few of these have become household names, such as William Golding, Salman Rushdie, and double winner Hilary Mantel. But mention Aravind Adiga, JM Coetzee or even the first winner Bernice Rubens, and it’s likely you’ll need to give a little more context about who they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t popular writers among their fans, merely that their work hasn’t caught on with the public the same way as their prized novels.

But who needs to be an outright success as an author? There is a term in publishing known as the midlist.

These are books from authors that don’t shift in great numbers, but do sell well enough to justify remaining in print. By its very nature, there are no great examples of midlist authors, because most of a publisher’s roster is likely to fall into this category. In fact, remove the handful of high earners and everyone else probably fits there.

This structure seems to be particularly true in non-fiction. Friends who have told me anecdotally that writing articles can bring in a steady enough income to justify their efforts.

So even if your next project doesn’t catch on as you expected, give it a little time and see whether it fits within the midlist.

Back Six Years

I don’t often post my work online, as publishers often consider it to be previously published. This week, however, I wanted to devote an entry to something that’s already in the public domain.

In 2013, my first short story was included in an anthology by The Fiction Desk. This was before I began to write poetry. Even reading this back six years later, I’m still pleased with how it turned out. Below is the full text.

A Big Leap

By Gavin Cameron

I don’t know exactly how small you are, I think I might be about three thousand times bigger than you. It must be really horrible being your size. When you jump through the grass it must be like going through a forest, and the nettles must sting you if you’re not careful. The sky probably looks even further away to you. Do you have a bedroom? You could have a glass of milk and an afternoon nap when you get tired.

You’d probably like to be a bit bigger. If you were the same size as me, you’d be able to run over the grass and go a lot further. You could play football, or ride a bike, or we could even get you some clothes, maybe a T-shirt and some jeans and a pair of new trainers and a hat if you wanted one. Can you swim? A puddle must seem like a swimming pool to you, but the leisure centre probably wouldn’t let you in, even if you were my size. And I know Mum wouldn’t let you sit at the table because she hates creepy crawly things so you might have to get your own dinner.

I don’t know what I’d call you if you were a girl. I’d call you Graham if you were a boy so you’d be Graham the grasshopper. I’d get a collar with your name on it like a dog and tell everyone you were mine.

If you were the size of an elephant, I could ride you. We’d go down to the shops for sweets and we could patrol the library and tell noisy people they had to be quiet or we would throw them out. On a Saturday, we’d go out for the whole day and go over the hills and see people in other countries and they would give us little wooden things to take home with us, but we’d still stop for sweets on the way back. Maybe you’d even be able to fly and when it got dark, you could take us all the way up to the moon, and we could play there for a bit, then land back in our back garden, but you’d have to be really quiet because Mr Parker next door doesn’t like noise. I think you’d like to be me but I don’t think I’d like to be you. You’re just an ornament so you can’t move unless we move you but I can move anywhere I like. Oh well, at least you’ll be here later. I’ll come and talk to you again after dinner.

Based on a True Story

Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?

Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?

The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.

But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.

One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.


The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.

Patchwork Poetry

Many writers like to post their work on the Internet. People I follow here on WordPress do it regularly.

But it’s important to remember that publishers generally won’t accept work that’s available online. It’s difficult to persuade readers to pay for a book when the material can be found on the author’s website free of charge. That’s why you rarely see my work here.

Today, however, I’m making an exception, as it already appears on a friend’s Facebook page.

The friend in question posted about the patch notes for the computer game The Sims. These notes detail which bugs have been fixed and which features have amended. Out of context, some of the notes sound ludicrous.

I then combined this with a list published by Beloit College to help their colleagues understand the worldview of the 18- to 22-year-olds who enrol in their classes. The Mindset List throws up similar gems that sound ludicrous out of context. I’ve long been taken by the phrase ‘Dean Martin, Mickey Mantle, and Jerry Garcia have always been dead’ from one of the lists, and finding the notes for The Sims was the perfect companion.

The last verse should have a hanging indent, but this is difficult to achieve in HTML. Nonetheless, I hereby present:

Dean Martin Has Always Been Dead

Alien abductions have been disabled on houseboats.
Top Spook is an equal opportunity post.
The bed has been made less lethal.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

‘Dude’ has never had a negative tone.
‘Become Enemies with Child’ wish no longer appears.
Fixed a tuning issue so they vomit at acceptable levels.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Spray paint has never been legally sold in Chicago.
There has never been a Barings Bank in England.
Fire engines maintain functionality in Egypt, China, and France.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Carbon copies are oddities found in attics.
Fish are no longer duplicated in the fridge.
Babies and toddlers will no longer go into a frozen state.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Their parents’ car CD player is so ancient and embarrassing.
An issue caused unicorns to lose their special powers.
As kids they probably never got chicken pox.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Americans and Russians have always co-operated in orbit;
they have never really needed to study at a friend’s house.
Fairy children will no longer stretch into adult size.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

They no longer play detonated pianos.
Televisions no longer play after they are burned or broken.
They have never attended a concert in a smoke-filled arena.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Fixed an issue that could cause a teen to be trapped in a child’s body when travelling to the future at the exact moment of a birthday; they have never needed directions to get someplace, just an address.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Derailed

I mentioned last week I would be spending a lot of time on trains, thus giving me time to read.

File:Fraud.jpg
By Nick Youngson – http://www.nyphotographic.com/ Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/ – CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

When travelling by rail, it’s always prudent to expect delays. In this case, another train broke down near Penrith station and the passengers on mine were allowed onto the platform while the obstruction was cleared. This gave me time to finish one of my books, but I also needed to work on a presentation.

Every month, Creative Dundee holds an event called Make / Share. This is a night where people such as designers, artists, computer programmers, or anyone who creates something, are invited to speak about their work. The next event is on Tuesday 10 July and I’ve been asked to speak on the theme of impostor syndrome.

I’m not a lifelong fiction writer and certainly not a lifelong poet, and I’ve always been upfront about this. Even so, it’s difficult not to feel an outsider when you’re among people who’ve been creating fictional universes since they were in primary school. I’ll be telling the audience about five times I felt I didn’t belong on the writing scene.

I also mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when I appeared on  The Beans Podcast. This is a weekly show compèred by my friends Valerie Mullen, Erin Farley and Sam Gonçalves. Like Make / Share, which Sam hosts, the podcast also invites creative people to give their story; indeed, it’s also worth listening to their previous episode about learning to like poetry.

But until the real writers figure out I’m one massive fraud, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

Ring-Fenced Reading

By the time you read this entry, I’ll be on a train between Edinburgh and Preston. It’s a long journey, so I’m going to use the time to read two borrowed books.

"Derek Robertson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Derek Robertson (CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)), via Wikimedia Commons
The first is ‘Hong Kong’ Full Circle 1939-45 by Alexander Kennedy. The author was a lieutenant commander who had 500 copies privately published to tell the story of his service. Although it’s not something I would pick myself, I’ve flipped through some of the pages, and it promises to be an engaging story.

The second is The Lighthouse Boy by Craig Mair, about the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Arbroath. I originally intended to read the book in the town, ideally on the cliffs overlooking the water, but my plan didn’t work out. Although the overall book is a work of fiction, its characters are based on real people and the plot is based on actual events.

There used to be a Silent Reading Party nearby, modelled upon an event in New York, where readers would sit together and read silently for an hour; attendees were allowed to converse beforehand and afterward. Unfortunately, the organiser hasn’t run the parties for some months now and I have too many commitments to revive it.

I enjoyed attending because the time was specifically set aside for reading. If I’d decided to do it myself at home or even in a cafe, I would probably have become distracted, but the presence of the other attendees kept me what your organiser has focused. So I hope I’m able to employ some self-discipline on this train journey.