Archive for the ‘Newsy stuff’ category

Moving home …

July 15, 2010

This is the last post for The Idle Writer on WordPress.

I’ve been persuaded by M. Mouton that Blogger is more ewesful and easier to design, so this blog will now continue at its new address of

Please join me there for more musings on writing and books. And I promise to be more frequent …


The Kraken Wakes

July 3, 2010

Well, the Idle Writer has been aroused from his slumber.

I have finally found the time to start promoting writing services – proofreading, copyediting, book editing and copywriting. I’ve created a website and put a peg in the ground, as politicians are wont to say. I’m intending to do more writing and more work around writing, so I’ve got to put a hand in the air and start waving: I’m here! There’s a lot of trash being written out there, so someone has to save the world from it!

The new site is The Idle Writer, and it’s open for business right now.

More inventive and humorous posts on writing will follow, now that I’m going to be idling my time between the UK and France and will have plenty of time to talk about writing and all its associated elements.

Vonnegut’s legacy

April 15, 2007

Like many people, I guess, I’ve felt a special attachment to Kurt Vonnegut since the first time I read anything by him. That first book was probably Slaughterhouse 5, and I read it because they made a film in the early seventies that looked interesting and vaguely science-fiction-ish. Which was a plus.

So that was about 1972, and over here in Britain they started publishing or republishing all of his early works. So I was able to scarf up The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, Player Piano … all leading to the publication of his ‘birthday present to [him]self’ – Breakfast of Champions, in 1973.

So what was it that attracted people to him? What did he do, as a writer, that made the books resonate?

Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan are, to some extent, fairly straightforward science-fiction. Except that the latter is very funny, cleverly structured, and speaks with an individual voice practically unheard in 1950s science-fiction. By that I mean that you have a sense of a real person writing the words. It’s there in the first few paragraphs, and if you look closely you can see how he does it: simple phrases, homely words, familiar metaphors. Like this:

“Gimcrack religions were big business.” …
“Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward … It flung them like stones.”

The use of “gimcrack”, “big business” and “like stones” tell us that this language is going to be the kind of language we all use. It’s not “literary” or difficult. It’s slightly ironic in tone but the irony of the common person, the person who regards large institutions with suspicion and who uses language to describe exactly what he or she sees, without fancy metaphors: “like stones.”

Reading The Sirens of Titan now, it actually feels quite literary compared to the later books. There are long sentences, quite a few descriptive passages, and lots of characters and situations. Later, Vonnegut refined his technique further – fewer characters, shorter sentences, less description. It was as if we began to understand Vonnegut-world and he didn’t have to describe it to us any more. What became important was the depth of his insights and the simplicity with which he began to express them.

At one level, this is perhaps why his novels became less successful even as his essays and other writings became more popular. He no longer needed the excuse of fiction to talk to us – he could use his essays and recorded speeches. I was sorry about that, because reading The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle for the first time is a lesson in how to have your head expanded to take in new fictional possibilites. For example, the use of drawings – created by himself – to punctuate and illustrate his books; or the introduction of himself as a character in Breakfast of Champions, pre-dating similar tactics by Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Douglas Coupland by a few decades. (He actually introduced himself as a character, though briefly, in Slaughterhouse 5, as someone excreting his brains … always the comedian!)

I spent a couple of years studying Vonnegut for a Ph.D. thesis, and later went on to teach Cat’s Cradle to college students. Despite these circumstances that are guaranteed to cool your ardour for any author, I ended up admiring him even more as a writer. To the extent that I found my own writing was beginning to lurch towards sub-Vonnegutian aphorisms and brevity. Unfortunately for me – or perhaps fortunately – I hadn’t suffered the same way he had: his mother committed suicide on the eve of Mother’s Day, the day Vonnegut returned home prior to being shipped abroad to fight in WW2; and his sister, Alice, and her husband, both died in one week in 1958 – she of cancer, he in a railroad accident two days before. All of these events, together with the well-publicised circumstances he endured during the fire-bombing of Dresden, gave him a perspective on the brevity of human life that was hard earned.

So Kurt has been there somewhere in the background for me for the last 35 years or so. Even as I read his later works with less and less enthusiasm, my admiration for the man as a humanist and someone who saw things clearly grew. Now it seems like there isn’t anyone out there who’s going to call us to account. My other favourite living author, Gore Vidal, is declining as a literary force, and his playful, if biting, comments more often sound left-field rather than right-minded. Too many disappointments seem to have clouded his judgement.

In these days of Bush, Blair and Bin Laden, we needed Kurt Vonnegut. Shame he had to go.


Getting the word across

December 22, 2006

I’ve been trying out a couple of sites where you can get your work critiqued by folk who don’t know you – thus getting around that difficulty of asking friends or family to give an ‘honest’ opinion. Yeah, right, as if that’s going to happen!

They don’t want to hurt your feelings OR they don’t actually read much OR they do read but they know nothing about the genre in which you’re working. So their views don’t add up to a hill of beans. Sorry, folks, that’s just the way it is.

So online communities where you can get some kind of feedback from people who don’t know you, but are interested in writing, and may even know something about the genre you’re writing in … it’s what the internet was created for!

I mentioned Critique Circle in my first entry on this blog. Here you have to critique 3 other pieces of writing before you get the opportunity to upload your own. It goes in a ‘Newbie’ queue initially, then when that piece has had six reviews you can start posting your work to a forum that’s more specialised. So my new book, The Secret Place, is going up now on to the Mystery – Crime – Suspense forum. Pieces stay a week in the visible part of the forum before being archived. I’ve had 12 crits on one chapter – some of them helpful, some of them disposable, not because they were ‘negative’ in tone, but because the comments were opinionated and not detailed enough. Here’s the home page:

Critique Circle

The other site is I think a UK site, because it’s backed by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The way this one seems to work is that you review someone’s opening chapters, which then gives you the right to upload your own. If it’s a chapter from a novel, then it must be between 6K and 10K words. If it’s a short story, it can be less. You get feedback in the form of a straightforward review, but the reviewer also rates the story 1 – 5 on a number of factors such as believable characters, dialogue, plot development etc. Then, each month, the highest rated chapters get a free critique from ‘literary professionals’, including agents and a published author. There are a few more hoops to jump through for this site, but as with Critique Circle it’s free and works well, so it’s worth giving it a go. The site is here:


I’m sure there are similar sites elsewhere but if I carried on looking for them, I’d never get anything else written, would I? Oh, I was forgetting, that’s the premise of the Idle Writer …

Fame at last!

December 19, 2006

As we writers (ahem) often do, I looked myself up on Google earlier today, just to see where my book – Altered Life – is now showing up. It’s rather like watching an oil slick – or a poison-gas cloud – dispersing and spreading out, finding it cropping up in any number of different places.

And today, I made it. I’ve achieved permanent fame. A quotation from the book has been included as part of the definition of ‘toboggan’ in Wiktionary, an offshoot of the Wikipedia project. I can’t tell you what a thrill that gives a humble scribe, to see something he’s written given a sense of permanence and validation by inclusion in a definition. Not exactly the Oxford Shorter but hey, it’ll do. Anybody else out there had this experience?

The entry is here, right at the bottom of the definition:


%d bloggers like this: