Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - for Kanani on writing

The Lowery Institute blog in  Friday funny: Always blow on the pie carries the New Zealand always blow on the pie video clip that has become such a smash. Do visit. It's really quite funny. Meantime, Lexcen in Retirement - now why didn't I think of that? carried a very funny real life story. Only the English. Both posts made me laugh, and that's a good thing.

I usually refer to Kanani Fong's Get Lost with Easy-Writer. There she wrote a little on her visit to the Blog World Expo including Blog Blog Blog Blog. However, she also has another blog, The kitchen Dispatch, where she is part way through a Friday series on writing. The message in her last post, Part 3. After War: Writing & Reading, is:

So go to it. Read. A lot. Then, start writing but don't think too much. If you do, you'll never be able to finish.

Kanani and I have dialogued before on writing in cross-posts and in comments. There we talked in part about the need to immerse yourself in the material. In her latest post, she is making in part a different but related point, reading other people's writing including those outside the immediate genre just to see how they do it. From my experience, that's pretty right.

If you look at what I have just written, you will see that it's in my normal style: short sentences, short paragraphs. I use this in my official writing, in my column and in writing in an-online environment.

Just at present, NSW, Premier Nathan Rees is concerned with the poor standard of official English in NSW.To quote the story from Lisa Carty in the Herald:   420nathan-rees-420x0

NSW public servants will be put under a plain-English microscope to make sure the documents they produce are clear and precise.

Premier Rees is quite correct to want to improve NSW official English. From my own experience, some of it is quite dreadful. However, there is a problem.

A remarkably small number of NSW Public Servants actually write very much: they live in a world of spread-sheets, of emails, of power point presentations; a world in which written forms (briefing note, memo, ministerial, Cabinet minute) must comply with templates and rules; a world where every word is scrutinised for message.

Note that in my last paragraph I deliberately switched to the use of colons and semi-colons. More on this a little later. 

In my management writing I have often commented that management issues become popular just when (indeed because) the underlying reality is going in the opposite direction. It used to be the case that the need to explain, to get the message across, was an implicit part of everything done. It was just there. The focus was on technique. Today the communications strategy is de rigueur, a mandatory part of every policy move. Officials spend more time strategising on how to communicate than they do in actually communicating!

I learned to write in a more expansive world. There were two forms of communication, written and oral, each with their own requirements. Both involved writing. Beyond this, the structure and form of communication was dictated by purpose. I accept that this is a generalisation, one that blurs as we move into film or TV. 

Today with multiple media, the writer ( I am using this term in a broad sense) has to take into account not just message and purpose, but also media and mixed media that in themselves require very different approaches. Is is any wonder that the actual act of writing, a craft that depends upon practice, has become diminished? We end by letting medium dominate. 

Kanani herself, I would argue, has become caught in this trap. Her post, Compression: The 50,000 word book is the new Dodo bird, shows this because it suggests that the medium has become dominant over the writing.

Earlier I mentioned colons and semi-colons.

My benighted PhD thesis (here and here) has, I recently discovered in emails with an old colleague, achieved minor mythic importance in my old university. This was a 100,000 word biography of my grandfather. Essentially I failed - the thesis is formally classified as "unfinished" even though it was submitted and marked.  

In the introduction, I explored the difficulties that could arise between writing history as dictated by the thesis structure and biography. Biography involved judgements about perception and feeling that could be difficult to accommodate in the more formal thesis structure. I felt that I had bridged this gap.

Speaking just as a writer, the writing of the thesis was enormously liberating. I wanted to write a readable document as literature, not just history. My normal short sentence paragraph style was replaced by longer paragraphs using multiple punctuation. The literary tests I applied linked to readability, but also sound.

In writing the thesis I did, as Kanani suggested, read lots of biography. I also, again as Kanani suggested, looked at alternative writing including Jane Austin! How were sentences structured? How did the words flow? Did it meet the quick read test (getting substance with a scan), while also attracting the reader into a detailed read?

I then experimented with all this in my writing. It was fun not to be constrained by the restraints I normally wrote under.


Kanani said...

Hi Jim,
It's always great to know someone reads what I write!

The series was started after a few soldiers and wives wrote to ask me about writing. In addition, I have been sent far too many self-published books that were either lacking, or were better than they thought and should have been put through an agent in order to garner better distribution and money.

Yes, I'm definitely caught in the very uneasy trap where the medium is dominating the writing. There will always be room for more books, but how Kindle and the like will shape them is both interesting --and challenging.

As I was rewriting my novel (or WIP --for work in progress), I decided to use an inexpensive and easy program called Scrivener. It's made for screenwriters, but book writers may use it too.

Anyway, Scrivener allows the writer to insert video, photos, and scanned in notes as a means of organizing the work. And so it became apparent that this IS going to be the form of the novel in the future as Kindles and e-readers start to gain more popularity.

By the way, Kindles are popular in the combat zones with soldiers --at least the ones with electricity. It allows them to upload books pre-deployment and take them with.

So the issue I face now is... do I gear my novel for that? I want to, but I lack the technical skills (never got programing a VCR, failed at TIVO, could not figure how to answer my new phone the other day). Do we as writers enjoin with videographers, photographers to fill in our gaps? Do we become mini media companies on our own?

I'm rather curious how it will all pan out. But after my trip to Blog World Expo, it's apparent that it will be the younger generation (our kids age) that brings it all to fruition!

So ask your daughters what they think. That might be very interesting.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Kanani

This conversation actually triggered my next column!

Dealing with the girls first. They have absolutely no interest in technology except as a means to an end. They grew up with it, they use it to some degree, but its just a tool.

Both actually write very well, with differences that reflect their personalities. Helen's writing is lucid, Clare's more over the place.

I don't think, and I must ask them this just to be sure, that either would bother reading a book on screen. Both do read, Clare more than Helen. She actually wants to be a writer and her room overflows with books.

Both are more visual than I am, but this holds true within limits. They can more easily prepare things such as rolling slide shows or videos for reproduction at things such as 21sts. However, they appear to have no automatic interest in the use of multi-media combinations for professional or communications purposes.

Like you, I wrestle with the extent to which I should use mixed media, as well as tools such as Scrivener.

I am not at all sure about this (mm) in novel form. I think that it might actually detract from the pure exercise of imagination. I don't even like illustrations or graphics in novels!

This has become a long comment. Perhaps a post some time?