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Should your f#%king characters swear?

March 11, 2011

Photo of an angry young man

In the opening paragraph of John Marsden’s young adult novel Tomorrow When the War Began, Ellie, the teenaged main character, is trying to write down the story to come.  She is not religious or a goody-goody or anymore a school girl.  In fact, she’s a stressed-out rebel outcast who has ditched all authority in her life.  Surrounded by her teenaged mates who are jostling and annoying her, she says, ‘Rack off guys!’

Now, I ask you, is that realistic?

I love John Marsden’s book with a passion, but the total lack of swearing doesn’t work for me.  I know plenty of people like Ellie (I mean teenagers, not guerrillas).  They all swear – maybe not in front of their grandmothers, but on their own and with their friends, and particularly when under stress.  I too swear every day of my life and have done since I was younger than Ellie.  I know I’m not alone in this.

Swearing is not a lazy way of being angry.

It’s learned as part of developing a grown-up language.  It’s about being fluent.  It’s about casual and easy communication.  It’s about being in control, being independent of authority figures – particularly parents – who tell you how to speak.  It’s normal, it’s a habit.  And some people swear a lot, because of their upbringing, their circumstances or their personality.  Yes, there are other inventive ways to abuse people, and express anger, fear, delight or pain.  Swearing is not instead of but in addition to these ways.

And who says it’s offensive?

There’s a big question here about the morality of disallowing swearing and the constraints on culture when certain words are taboo or even defined as offensive.  Look at who is being suppressed, and by whom.

As for stamping out or even keeping in check undesirable behaviour…

Radio stations forbid swearing on air, but shock jocks still manage to, uh, shock people.  Unruly louts cower everyone in the train carriage by yelling out, ‘Cunts!’  Would it actually be any better if they yelled, ‘Vaginas!’? And do we really violate children by telling ‘shit’ instead of ‘poop’ jokes?  Only when those children have been taught that ‘shit’ is a baaaad word, surely.  When The Little Red School Book came out in 1969, my sister stole our copy from home and brought it to school to share under the desks.  Everyone tittered over the similes for ‘penis’.  That frisson was exactly what the ban-the-book campaigners wanted to prevent, but they would have had more success by introducing ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ into their own speech.  Then we would have known that swearing was uncool.

So what does this mean for your fictional characters?

Are you going to give them authentic voices or shush them as if you’re a school librarian?  Because if they always have to be on their best behaviour, you’re never going to see their real selves, just as you wouldn’t see their real selves in real life.  So let them swear – it’s natural!  Or more importantly, if your characters are the swearing types, it could sound unnatural if they don’t swear.

‘Darn it, Mac!  You left the flipping gun in the truck.  You’re such a so-and-so!’

‘Oh poo, Robbo!  It wasn’t my blasted job to bring the silly gun, you dingbat!’

In my novel Wombat Blues, a tale told by a modern Australian teenage guy beset by troubles, my favourite line comes at the end of a long day when he’s hit rock bottom.  He simply says, ‘Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.’  Totally sums it up, in my opinion.

But perhaps you don’t buy my arguments for swearing.

Still shaking your head?  ‘I may not be the school librarian,’ I hear you say, ‘but I want to get my fucking novel into school libraries, so it’s got to pass the bloody librarians, doesn’t it?’

Okay, okay.  So here are some creative alternatives.Captain Haddock Anger Management Lessons

  • Pretend swearing: ‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon!’

This is a great one for the kiddies and the kiddies-at-heart (and the librarians).  Tintin, the famous boy reporter created by Hergé, has a best friend called Captain Haddock, an old sea dog who’s picked up the lingo.  He loses his temper easily and loudly and says things like, ‘Who’s the thundering son of a sea-gherkin who did that?’  You just know what the translation would be in a Hollywood action film.

  • Made-up words: ‘You puggin mother-pugger!’

Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country is a novel about Aboriginal Australia.  It’s an authentic and incendiary story about an unhappy period of Australian history when children were taken from their mothers simply for being ‘half-caste’.  Herbert, who had worked in a ‘half-caste home’, wrote from deep personal experience about his huge cast of characters, and it shows.  But nowhere in 1,500 pages does he use the ‘f’ word.  It doesn’t seem to matter.  Once you hear it a few times, you forget that he made up ‘pugging’ as an alternative.  Whenever I read this book, I go around for weeks afterwards being misunderstood.  (‘Who left the pugging milk out of the fridge?’  ‘What?’)

  • Masked words: ‘effing’, ‘adjectival’

This is Peter Carey’s choice in True History of the Kelly Gang.  Carey wrote his novel in Ned Kelly’s voice, and as all Australians know, Ned hated troopers but would have sworn like one.  Still, Carey brought Ned to life without having him swear.  He did it by giving the semi-literate bushranger the task of winning over his gentle readers with respect as well as honesty.  Ned’s story is blunt and brutal, but he will not stoop to crudeness.  There is power and, at the same time, restraint in the language.  ‘It is death by hanging you little eff.’ ‘O Christ said he can’t a man eat his adjectival tea.’

(By the way, am I the only one who thought it was weird when Uncle Vernon muttered, ‘Enough – effing – owls’ in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?  After four long books, she finally made a character swear, and Uncle Vernon of all people…  )


Angry young man, by Frederic Dupont

Captain Haddock Anger Management Lessons, Ivan Rojas Reyes


The ‘characterless’ character: Lessons from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground

March 3, 2011

…a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature.  That is my conviction of forty years.

Portrait of DostoevskyDostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a short, strange, violent novel: a piece of 19th Century Russian punk.

It’s well-known as a political and philosophical treatise and claimed as the earliest existentialist fiction.  An unnamed narrator, a retired civil servant living in isolation and inaction – an ‘underground’ life – in St Petersburg, begins thus: ‘I am a sick man…  I am a spiteful man.  I am an unattractive man.’  And it’s a ‘nasty, stinking, underground home’ that Dostoevsky describes with hot fury against the ‘literary’ world, the ‘decent’ world, and as he says, ‘whether you care to hear it or not’.  Feel the spittle on your cheek when he announces the mood of this novel:

I got to the point of feeling a sort of secret abnormal, despicable enjoyment in returning home to my corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely conscious that that day I had committed a loathsome action again, that what was done could never be undone, and secretly, inwardly gnawing, gnawing at myself for it, tearing and consuming myself till at last the bitterness turned into a sort of shameful accursed sweetness, and at last – into positive real enjoyment!

But for me, it’s one of the great how-to books on creating character.

I believe Dostoevsky intended it that way, and Underground man is presented as his model.  (The character continuously talks about how ‘bookish’ he is, and not only how he’s read a lot of books.  ‘I could not speak except “like a book”,’ he says, and adds, ‘it’s hardly literature so much as a corrective punishment.’)

Dostoevsky’s motivation is clear in the Notes as he rails against conventional literature, described as dreams instead of reality, those ‘flights into the sublime and the beautiful’, ‘fantastic love … never applied to anything human in reality’.  He ponders what Underground man would look like if he were instead a conventional literary hero (‘passed satisfactorily by a lazy and fascinating transition into the sphere of art’).  He’d be ‘triumphant over everyone’ and they’d all be forced to recognize his superiority, although he’d also be humble.  He’d come in ‘for countless millions’ then immediately donate them ‘to humanity’.  While everyone adored him, he’d ‘go barefoot and hungry preaching new ideas and fighting a victorious Austerlitz [famous Napoleonic battle] against the obscurantists’.*  In other words, he’d be unrealistic and ridiculous… but also recognizable as the main character of much bad fiction.

What attributes does Dostoevsky give his ‘characterless’ character?

  • A contrary nature that can’t be pinned down to one set of motives

Underground man is a mass of contradictions:

You thirst for life and try to settle the problems of life by a logical tangle.  And how persistent, how insolent are your sallies, and at the same time what a scare you are in!  You talk nonsense and are pleased with it; you say impudent things and are in continual alarm and apologizing for them.  You declare that you are afraid of nothing and at the same time try to ingratiate yourself in our good opinion… You may, perhaps, have really suffered, but you have no respect for your own suffering.  You may have sincerity, but you have no modesty… You boast of consciousness, but you are not sure of your ground…

But what does this contrariness mean in practice?  Well, take, for example, revenge.  The ‘direct’ and ‘stupid’ person (conventional hero) ‘dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down’.  Underground man, however, who thinks of himself as a mouse, creates ‘so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions, adds to the one question so many other unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew… Maybe it will begin to revenge itself, too, but, as it were, piecemeal, in trivial ways, from behind the stove, incognito, without believing either in its own right to vengeance, or in the success of its revenge, knowing that from all its efforts at revenge it will suffer a hundred times more than he on whom it revenges itself…’

So Underground man is definitely not happy, but lest you imagine that he is also evil, we’re reminded that – good or bad – everyone is full of guilty, fearful, secret thoughts.  In fact, ‘the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.’

  • Choice – reaching beyond the rational

It goes deeper than giving a character a range of qualities.  A person is ‘not a piano-key!’  Underground man doesn’t always act to his own advantage.  More important than reason is choice:

And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea).  One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy… And choice, of course, the devil only know what choice.

  • A surface but also an underground

This character is a thinker, and we are privy to his inner, ‘underground’ world.  But his thoughts are not always reliable and honest.  In fact, he’s a liar and even lies to himself – even when he’s telling us so.

I swear to you, gentlemen, there is not one thing, not one word of what I have written that I really believe.  That is, I believe it, perhaps, but at the same time I feel and suspect that I am lying like a cobbler.

  • Above all, an individual human nature

Underground man is ‘a real individual body and blood’, as opposed to ‘some sort of generalized man.’  His life, according to his own view, is ‘paltry, unliterary, commonplace.’  (Unliterary = unromantic)

Okay, he’s not very nice.  So why should you try to create such a creature?

Because no one is more interesting or real.  We’re fascinated by Underground man – and woman!  We don’t like to read about nice people, we don’t believe them, unless we at least glimpse a bit of nasty underneath.  Look at the examples below.  These characters are so different, but we recognise ourselves in them – villains and heroes all.  That’s their power.  Underground man dismisses the retort, ‘Speak for yourself.’  If we’re tempted to write him off as an oddball, he warns: ‘I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what’s more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves.’  This is not a creature without character but without a definable character because it is as vast as any real human one.

Examples of ‘characterless’ characters


Raskolnikov Dostoevsky used his own instructions some years later to create the main character of Crime and Punishment, arguably one of the greatest anti-heroes in all literature.  Raskolnikov commits murder and spends most of the novel trying to work out why.

Statue of Hamlet


Hamlet Of course, Dostoevsky’s example of the revenge motive immediately calls to mind Shakespeare’s deepest role.  Underground man does not have to be ignoble.


Catherine Earnshaw The tragic centre of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  Wild and wayward, yet loyal in love even beyond the grave.


Anna Karenina Another tragic heroine.  Adores her only son then abandons him for a love affair that ends in suicide.


Victor Maskell A modern one, the subject of John Banville’s 1997 novel, The Untouchable.  He’s the classic unreliable narrator, a double agent based on the real-life spy Anthony Blunt, a cad, mean to his children, charming, a hopeless romantic.


Chip Lambert Another modern one, from Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections.  On the surface, an ordinary middle class academic failure.  Underneath/underground, a depressive, outrageously irresponsible, unjust to his parents.  Also, like the rest of the Lamberts, sad, lovable and funny, and we’re glad he has a happy ending.

How do you create this character?

Clearly not by writing a list of traits or answering a set of stock questions: What’s their favourite food?  Who do they vote for?  What was their most loved pet?  As if you’re crafting a profile on a dating site.  You simply can’t capture this character in any plan.  Well then, how?  Here’s an idea.

Write an incident – a small one – in your Underground wo/man’s life.  Start with one of the following:

  • Their voice
  • Their mood
  • An image – of something specific, tiny or off to the side.

Be very honest with yourself about what is going on.  Don’t worry if Underground wo/man isn’t.  Just let them do what they do.

* By the way, Dostoevsky was an avowed ‘obscurantist’.  He saw human doubt and confusion as immensely valuable, and this was in fact the basis of his strong religious faith.  The theme is borne out in The Brothers Karamazov.  I’m grateful to In Umbris Sancti Petri, a blog on Catholicism and philosophy, for alerting me to the following from Dostoevsky’s diary: “The dolts have ridiculed my obscurantism,’ writes Dostoevsky concerning The Brothers Karamazov, ‘and the reactionary character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression…The whole book is an answer to that. You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.’


Dostoevsky, Douglas Brown

Axe murder (Raskolnikov), Jacob Enos

Hamlet, Stephen Boisvert

Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Jason Paul Smith

Anna Karenina, Cod Gabriel

The spy, Marcus S.

Jonathan Franzen, David Shankbone


A Smile of Fortune by Joseph Conrad – a gay classic

February 20, 2011

I’m excited to announce the induction of Joseph Conrad’s story ‘A Smile of Fortune’ into the annals of classic literature with unrecognized gay sub-texts.  This hall of fame (but not for being gay) includes Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew and Astrid Lingren’s The Brothers Lionheart, as I’ve already argued.  Conrad’s story is a serious addition and way up the list.

This post might also be a scoop because I’ve failed to uncover any other writing on Conrad that even hints at a gay sub-text in ‘A Smile of Fortune’.  It’s tempting to think that I must therefore be wrong.  Yet a gay reading would explain the weird plot and mysterious characters, and other commentary on ‘A Smile of Fortune’ tends to leave it as mysterious or skips over the mysterious elements altogether.  So please bear with this rather long post in which I explain.

I trust that you’ll find the story crafty and intriguing.  Whether or not you care at all about gay sub-texts, it’s a fascinating puzzle.

Conrad, the gay writer

Drawing of Conrad surrounded by his books through glass

The mysterious Mr Conrad

When it suits me, I’m happy to invoke Roland Barthes’s famous essay to dismiss as irrelevant the author’s intention for their story.  So what if the author never had a gay thought and would possibly even disagree vehemently with me about his or her own work?  Once the words leave your quill or typewriter, mate, they belong to me, and I’ll read them as I see fit.  (I had to take that attitude with The Taming of the Shrew, frankly.)

However, in the case of ‘A Smile of Fortune’, I can turn to Conrad himself for support.  A review of his life shows that he was probably straight – romantically attached to women, happily married.  But he was a sailor, and his biography The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad demurely refers to the possibility of ‘situational homosexuality’ at sea.  Certainly, Conrad sometimes met and befriended gay men, and some of his strongest characters are homosexual, based on real people and situations, as he himself admitted.  This was the case, for example, with Mr Jones the villain of Victory, and Il Conde, a tale about male prostitution.  But the best evidence comes from the sheer fact that all Conrad’s writing shows a fascination with hidden motives, and he often wrote subtle psychological sub-texts.  He would have loved for ‘A Smile of Fortune’ to have a secret gay hull!

The plot

The island of Mauritius at evening

The equally mysterious Mauritius - 'Pearl of the Ocean'

For those who haven’t yet read the story, here’s a synopsis.  It was written in 1910, but we can assume it’s set in the late 1800s because the characters are loosely based on people Conrad met in Mauritius at that time.

A young sea captain arrives in a port town to trade.  Immediately, he is accosted by a chandler (seller of ships’ provisions) named Jacobus who proceeds to wheedle his way into the captain’s trust.

I took stock of a big, pale face, hair thin on the top, whiskers also thin, of a faded nondescript colour, heavy eyelids.

It so happens that the captain has been asked by his ship’s owners to look up a merchant named Jacobus in the town.  The chandler Jacobus admits that he is not the merchant Jacobus but his brother, and he tells the captain, ‘My brother’s a very different person.’  Acquaintances of the captain confirm that there are indeed two brothers Jacobus, the chandler being a disreputable social outcast while the merchant is wealthy and well-respected.  The two have apparently not spoken to each other for years.

The captain calls on the merchant Jacobus, according to his owner’s instructions.  He is greatly surprised to find that this supposedly wealthy merchant has a squalid office away from the business quarter.  In an outer room he first meets the merchant’s assistant, a ‘mulatto’ boy, who admits him with strange trepidation into the merchant’s inner office.

A lanky, inky, light-yellow, mulatto youth, miserably long-necked and generally recalling a sick chicken…

The merchant is violent and menacing both to the boy and the captain, who is offended and quickly leaves.  The boy looks like a Jacobus, and the captain realises that he must be related to and is probably the son of the abusive merchant, who himself looks like his chandler brother.  From this incident, the captain decides that it is the merchant rather than the chandler who is the ne’er-do-well Jacobus, contrary to general opinion.

Meanwhile, the chandler is manipulating the naïve young captain to do business with him.  The captain is lured to the chandler’s house ostensibly so that they may talk privately, but while waiting there for the chandler, the captain meets a young woman named Alice, the chandler’s daughter.  The story accepted in the town is that Alice is an offspring of the chandler’s unseemly liaison with a travelling circus woman, who long ago died and left him with the child.  Although Alice mainly ignores and is rude to the captain, he becomes entranced with her and returns again and again to the chandler’s house just to see her.  Indeed, it’s the only place he can see her because she, like her father, is a social outcast and never ventures out.

A sort of shady, intimate understanding seemed to have been established between us.

On a visit to the house just before his ship is due to sail, the captain is no longer able to resist temptation and grabs Alice for a kiss.  She pushes him away and runs off, whereupon the chandler walks in and picks up the shoe which Alice has dropped in her haste.  In what appears to be veiled blackmail, the chandler advises the captain to buy a large shipload of potatoes from him.  This is the business deal the chandler has been attempting all along.  The captain agrees in order to avoid scandal – ‘outward decency may be bought too dearly at times’, although he believes the transaction spells commercial disaster.

He sees Alice once more at a parting in which both of them have changed.  Neither has any passion left, either desire or anger.  He’s off, and she’s done her job.

Unexpectedly, the potatoes deal is profitable for the captain, although he remains dispirited as he travels on.  A letter arrives from his ship’s owners inviting him to return to the port town to do further trade on the basis that ‘our good friend’ the merchant Jacobus has been in touch to say that he and the captain actually ‘hit it off’.

But the captain is consumed by self-disgust about his dealings with the Jacobus family, particularly as he remembers that Alice actually returned his kiss, and he vows to himself never to return ‘to fan that fatal spark’.  Depressed and appalled by his memories, he finally gives up his ship.

… the fact is that the Indian Ocean and everything that is in it has lost its charm for me.

The cunning sub-plot

Joanna Mary Boyce: Head of a Mulatto Woman

So here’s my thesis. The mulatto son of the merchant Jacobus, and Alice, the so-called daughter of the chandler Jacobus, are the same person – a young man.  This youth is actually the bastard son of the chandler, who is in cahoots with his brother to entrap the captain.

Chandler Jacobus elicits from the captain in their first meeting that the captain is ‘neither married nor even engaged’.  While the captain is inwardly shuddering at the very thought, the chandler takes note and concludes – rightly – that the captain may be lured by a boy dressed as a girl.


… he asked me with a dental, shark-like smile – if sharks had false teeth – whether I had yet made my little arrangements for the ship’s stay in port.

But the captain nearly wrecks the plan by turning up unexpectedly at the merchant Jacobus’s office.  He wasn’t supposed to meet the mulatto youth out of the Alice costume, but there he is, and the youth faces the captain ‘as if gone dumb with fright’.  Understandably so, as the youth know he’s been caught out.  Also, he’s an unhappy pawn in the Jacobus game.  The merchant is indeed disgusted by and therefore abusive towards his brother’s offspring.  But the quick-thinking merchant saves the situation by hustling the captain out as quickly as possible with extreme rudeness, before the captain can gain more than a glimpse of the youth.

And why the shabby office?  The merchant plays cards – and we may presume, does business – with the gentry at his nice house.  He generally discourages visitors to the office, where he keeps the boy.  Neither ‘Alice’ nor the boy is ever seen in public, in case people discover that they’re one and the same.  After all, it’s likely that the captain is not the first patsy to be taken in by the Jacobus brothers’ trick.

Later, at the chandler’s house, the mulatto youth is dressed up as ‘Alice’ in time for the captain’s visit there.  Alice has a ‘mass of black, lustrous locks’ that sits awkwardly on her head (a wig) and powder on her face.  She wears ‘a wrapper of some thin stuff’, never described as a dress, which reveals a ‘young supple body’.  As his enchantment increases over the weeks, the captain notices many things about this body.  Alice has a ‘round, strong neck’, a ‘generous, fine, somewhat masculine hand’, and ‘an unexpectedly harsh voice’.  There is ‘something elusive and defiant in her very form’.  Just like the mulatto youth, she bears the unmistakeable Jacobus looks, including the same dark eyes.  Never does the captain mention or even appear to notice whether Alice has any female curves.

The naïve young sea dog is unaware – and to tell the truth, a bit thick – about the affairs of his own heart.  He’s also a late 19th Century gentleman, very proper and upstanding, so has an excuse.  All he knows is that he and Alice have ‘the bond of an irrealizable desire’.  He muses that the earth is ‘the abode of obscure desires, of extravagant hopes, of unimaginable terrors’ as he gazes over Alice’s androgynous lines.

What folly was this? I would ask myself.  It was like being the slave of some depraved habit.

Meanwhile, the poor youth is becoming enamoured of the captain too, although ‘she’ is under strict instructions to hold him off as long as possible until he can be properly caught in the act of doing something to her.  She tries to warn him.  ‘It’s false,’ Alice says in the middle of one of their pointless conversations, but he doesn’t get it.  Later, after the kissing, and after the captain has been manoeuvred into the potatoes deal, Alice reveals more.  ‘I am not afraid of papa – by himself,’ she says, and adds, ‘I am not afraid of you!’  So, who then, in conjunction with ‘papa’, the chandler, does she fear?  It can only be the chandler’s merchant brother, who is so abusive to her when she is his boy servant.

Ultimately, the captain is the one who’s afraid.  He leaves, admitting that ‘only a sense of my dignity prevented me fleeing headlong from that catastrophic revelation.’  He is pursued, of course, by the brothers who want to use him further, but mainly by that revelation.  It had been ‘a unique sensation which I indulged with dread, self-contempt, and deep pleasure’, but he’s not strong enough to own it, let alone go back to Alice, and so he gives up his ship and the sea.  In the end, he knows himself as ‘vanquished’.

‘Twixt Land and Sea

Original Penguin paperback copy of 'Twixt Land and Sea Tales by Joseph Conrad

My own copy of the original Penguin paperback published in 1943, covered in stamps from 'The Mission for Seamen' and containing ads for Cadbury Bournville Cocoa and Chappie dog food

So which reading of ‘A Smile of Fortune’ do you prefer?  The usual one in which Alice is a girl, based on Alice Shaw, who Conrad met in Mauritius as a young man?  Or mine in which Alice is actually the ‘miserable mulatto lad’?  If you don’t like my theory, then at least ponder the following:

  • The dramatic scene in the merchant’s office must serve some purpose in the story.  If this short novella is just about the captain being blackmailed by the chandler over his daughter, why include the merchant Jacobus and the mulatto youth at all?  Remember, Conrad was a master and can be trusted to have had his reasons for writing them in.
  • If Alice is a girl, the ending to the story is ambiguous.  Neither the captain nor the reader can really understand why he’s so deeply appalled by his dealings with the Jacobus family.  You might say, well, that’s just typically modernist.  But, but, but… Conrad’s writing actually harks back to an earlier time of adventure when characters had motives and stories worked out.
  • And was it really accidental that ‘A Smile of Fortune’ was first published in book form in a collection of Conrad’s stories called ‘Twixt Land and Sea Tales?  (Betwixt and between, neither one nor the other.) The very next story in the collection is ‘A Secret Sharer’, about a captain who beds down with a stowaway sailor.  There are clear sexual connotation in that one, at least.

I could go on and give you more evidence (and all right, conjecture and innuendo too) but – please – read it and judge for yourself.  And do let me know what you think.



Joseph Conrad, drawing and books: Ben Sutherland

Mauritius: Selene Weijenberg

Joanna Mary Boyce: Head of a Mulatto Woman: freeparking

Instant creativity – an example of writing en plein air

February 11, 2011

Need a shot of originality? All ideas gone bye-bye? Your words as dull and lifeless as unwashed hair? Nothing but clichés (like ‘dull and lifeless as unwashed hair’) across your page? Worse still, no words to sully the page at all? Grab a notebook and pen, go outside, and write what you see. In my post Why you should write en plein air, I explained this simple and incredibly effective technique. But you need more evidence that it works, yes?

So here’s an example from my friend and fellow-scribe, David Spitzkowsky. He’s just sent me this piece of writing en plein air, and I have to share it because it’s wonderful. On his recent overseas trip, in his hotel one day with a few minutes to spare, he took up his pen and… well, I’ll let his words speak for themselves.


Inside the dome of St Isaacs Cathedral

I move back down into the hotel lobby. Wine, and blue cheese in delicate pastry and outside, always, looming, the Cathedral. Consecrated to the Byzantine Saint. Half a million built it. An unknown architect came to this town and made a life. Defying all the building standards of the time he raised the arches first: marble towering up on pulleys and the strength of more than two dozen men. Baltic men. The men of St. Petersburg.

Outside, the Cathedral looms. It becomes a Museum of Atheism; they hang Foucault’s Pendulum from the ceiling, from the dome of God. They completely fuck it up.

During the siege, the staff of the Hermitage are busy. They catalogue everything; they put it in crates and somehow get it to the Urals. Professors and groundsmen, they gather and toil in the snow. Bombs are falling. Some items cannot be moved: they bury them in sand in the basements. The windows, all thousands of glass, shatter and rain down into the freezing spaces. People shelter in the basements with the buried treasures. Starving.

Just months after the war ends, after the fighting ends and all the rest begins, they start to rebuild. During the siege, artists have sketched the shattering panes and the crumbling walls. For afterwards.

For this moment. A German boy is outside the city of Stalingrad. He is frostbitten and betrayed. His lips would bleed but they don’t. Later, a Russian boy will put a trembling pistol to the German boy’s head while he mumbles ‘Bitte…bitte…’ His mother will sit in a shell of a city. She, too, is starving. No-one will have any idea what it means. None of them will have a single shard of sense to grasp in their bony fingers. ‘Bitte…Bitte…’ he will say, a pure white piece of ice pushed up by history. Then there will be a ruby hole in his head: perfect in its simplicity.

There are pieces of glass in the Cathedral, glimmering above with gold within. Mosaics of breathless beauty: the Eden, the Epiphany, the Saints and there is our Christ Child golden bathed in light and Blessed his mother. Our saviours all. There: the Resurrection, looming above the Sanctuary with its golden doors and secrets and priests, the Resurrection all the Righteous to his right: white and faces uplifted. And there, to his left: the fallen. Muscular and writhing and falling into the Abyss.

Tell us a story. Show us the relic on a special day.

From the top of the Colonnade we see all of Saint Petersburg. Glittering, endless along the River Neva that thickens and crumples and pushes its ice upwards to their God. We climb the steps and see their City. And we wonder. Here, this is a city. The palaces and the houses of aristocrats, and their minders all, the vision rising all around in a gloaming sky in an early winter while someone shovels snow and scrapes the ice off the ledges on high, it falls down beautiful into the dirty sludge on the street below.

During the siege, as soon as the Germans are coming, as soon as the dreadful truth hits the city: all the staff of the Hermitage are summoned. Mostly, they come: all of the possibilities from gardeners to Chief. They begin to number and name, they begin to sort and crate, they will protect the treasures of the Tsars. And the windows shatter and the walls are smashed: trembling in the basements with treasures afar and their children thinning.

We think we know the price of art…

I once was cold: crying on a ski slope in New South Wales, with warm mittens and warm mother and warm dinner at a lodge. Better I would hide my face in shame. Birth: luck and chance. History and opportunity. Chance and luck. Bushfire and snowstorms. Bombs and blue cheese.

Outside, still, the Cathedral. Business deals and high finance, ballet visitors and bowls of olives. All the finery, all the furs. And all the jewels and gemstones, all the suffering history of the City of bridges. City of the Tsars. City of my icy face and wide eyed wonder, city of the Revolution.

They take the family, and across the grand nation they travel in a train car, adrift. Everyone hates them. Later, they are taken out into the snow in Siberia – blue glowing wondrous water from heaven – and they are shot in the head. Perfect in its simplicity.

Foucault’s Pendulum: swinging, swinging.

Dead children in the snow.

By David Spitzkowsky

Bombs and blue cheese

I love details like ‘bombs and blue cheese’ and the ‘muscular and writhing’ fallen.  These images occur to a writer who is there, whether they are overseas or in their own street, at a cathedral or a cafe.  The drama of the German boy mumbling; ‘Bitte… bitte’ with the Russian pistol trembling at his head is also the germ of a story, and there are others.  All within a few 100 words written in a few minutes.  If you want to see how notes like these get turned into a beautiful story, check out the latest edition, Issue 8, of Page Seventeen, a literary anthology that supports new great writers.  It includes one of David’s stories.

But is the vision true?

Here are some further comments from him about doing the en plein air exercise:  ‘I can’t seem to keep myself out of it, and then there’s the near impossibility of not ending up ‘back there’ or ‘up ahead’ or sideways or wherever it is when it’s not en plein air. And I’m wondering about those impressionist painters too: we can never be sure they weren’t actually standing in one garden and painting quite a different one altogether.’

Exactly, and my response is that what we see is always filtered through our mind – our imagination, our world view, our experience.  The vision is never pure, always interpreted.   (See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason!)  But that’s not a problem.  Giving our senses new stuff to feast on simply broadens the mind, and that in turn broadens the ideas and the images and the language we draw on to write stories.  Sometimes it even comes up with that most ideal expression for a writer – the description that makes a reader say, ‘I feel like I’m there.’

Photo: JimG

iPad as a techno-dummy writer’s tool

January 19, 2011

Sorry I haven’t posted since December, but I’ve been setting up my iPad, an unexpected Christmas present.  I want to establish it as a tool that makes it easier, cheaper and faster to write, read and research anything anywhere anytime – so I can get more words down.  Which is what it’s all about.  Hence the techie nature of this post.  (It’s not just an excuse for me to rave on about my new toy tool, okay?)

It blogs.

Outside with iPad typing

iPad as laptop

So here I am writing this post outside in the fresh air, on iPad in the WordPress app, using my foldable wi-fi keyboard to type.  It took me about a minute – no kidding – to download the app, hook it up to this WordPress blog of mine and start typing a post.  Believe me, I am one big techno-dummy, and it’s that easy.




It writes novels.

The other writing app I’ve downloaded and started using is My Writing Spot, a ‘distraction-free’ word processing platform.  It was recommended in a review post of same that compared the app to DocsToGo, Apple Pages and other popular writing apps.  As well as synching between iPad and computer, My Writing Spot backs-up directly to the net, which makes it nice and secure for my precious novel.  How much did it cost me?  Zilch.  (However, I’ll probably sling its small-business maker some support one day if I keep using it.)

It reads.

Reading on iPad outside

iPad as book holder

But iPad is for ebooks, right?  Indeed.  And so far I’ve downloaded some 20 full-sized books onto it, including all volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which I was halfway through reading in paper form.  I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this monster-long novel as an ebook so that I can search it electronically rather than flip back fruitlessly through all those pages.  (‘Didn’t Odette wear that same red dress when she met the Baron at the party back in … was it Volume 2 of Swann’s Way???’)  My downloads include, which has a massive thesaurus as well as dictionary.  I’ll probably get around to buying the online Australian Macquarie Dictionary soon too.

I can dim the brightness, read in bed without turning on a light, and switch to white print on a black page.  Good for saving power as well as my eyes.

It speed reads.

Current research says that it’s slower (by an average of 6.2%) to read on iPad than paper.  Now I sure don’t want to take longer than I need to get through all that Proust, do I?  No worries.  I’ve also downloaded a special ereader for speed readers called QuickReader, which gives me access to about 1 million books.  I’ve practiced and studied speed reading for a few years now, but this app looks like it makes it easier than other programs I’ve tried.  And the reviews say it’s brilliant.

It distracts researches.

iPhone and iPod apps fit on iPad, and many are now being redesigned to take advantage of iPad’s big screen.  So, of course, iPad can also be used to search the net, use email, listen to music, watch YouTube and movies, sort your photos, read newspapers, catch up on that vital Facebook stuff … and on and on.  Oh, and when I want to record any of my researches, there’s the basic Notes app for notetaking.  I love this app because of its simplicity, although others more techie than me swear by EverNote.

It’s portable and can be used anytime, anywhere.

iPad in a shoulder bag

The Hermione bag


In this shoulder bag here, I am toting nearly 20 novels, including the complete Remembrance of Things Past, a dictionary, a thesaurus, photo albums, a computer and keyboard, my phone, camera, keys, wallet, and – yes – I still have room for my favourite pen and a small notepad made out of honest-to-goodness paper.  (The latter is in case of battery failure and for scribbling down sundry information to give to friends who don’t do technology.) I feel like Hermione Granger with her magic unfillable handbag.


My iPad and foldable keyboard together weigh about the same as my little laptop, which is still not little enough to fit in my shoulder bag.

Foldable wi-fi keyboard

The keyboard folded up

Also, in the past if I’ve taken my laptop out to write somewhere without power for more than a couple of hours, I’ve had to lug along an extra battery.  Or, if going somewhere with power, a power pack.  Add all that to the weight of the laptop.  Which brings me to…


iPad’s battery lasts 10-15 hours before it needs charging.  It uses a standard iPod charger.  It can be charged in the car.  Say no more.

It’s comparatively cheap.

Given that I ‘need’ a computer and a mobile phone, this is an efficient set-up.  iPad costs $1,000, the case (protective and essential for typing with the wi-fi keyboard) costs $48, and I already owned the keyboard, which originally cost about $150.  Okay, so that’s a bit more expensive than my laptop, which is worth about $1,000.  But – and this is important – I no longer need my iPhone which I’m now going to sell.  It cost $700.  I’m going to use an old Nokia that’s been floating around the home office instead, because I only need it for those applications which require something pocket-sized.  And those things are: phone, MP3 player, camera.  The Nokia’s camera is better than the one in my iPhone 3 anyway.  (The photos here have been taken with the Nokia.  Does the job, not wonderful.)

New set-up                  Old set-up

iPad $1000                  Sony Vaio laptop $1000

Case $48

Keyboard $150

Nokia phone $150       iPhone $700

Total $1,348                Total $1,700

That said, I don’t think you’d replace your computer with an iPad altogether, and I’m certainly not ditching my laptop.  It’s now my desktop and back-up machine.  You do need a computer with iTunes to configure iPad in the first place, although after you’ve done that you could download all your ebooks and apps via wireless internet.  Speaking of which…

The grand total I have spent on ALL (repeat, ALL) my apps and ebooks so far is $29.  That was $5 for a book I haven’t been able to find anywhere in paper form, $5 for QuickReader, the highly recommended speed reading app, and $19 for Metroview, a GPS navigation app that seems to work just as well as the much more expensive TomTom.

Yes, almost all those ebooks I’ve downloaded are in the public domain – mine for free at the tap of a button.  When I get over the wonder of the freebees, I’ll no doubt start paying for some, but the cost of ebooks at Amazon and other major retailers is about $10-$15 and often less.

So what’s the catch?

Apart from all the distraction from writing offered by iPad (note how long it is since I last posted), there is one catch that is ABOMINABLE, APPALLING, AWFUL and BEASTLY.  (I used the online thesaurus to come up with similes for HORRIBLE.)  Then there is another catch that is MACHIAVELLIAN, ARTFUL, CORRUPT and CRAFTY (synonyms for SNEAKY).

1. iTunes stuff-ups

For no apparent reason, iTunes has decided to wipe my computer’s library of ebooks, music and apps.  When I went to sync iPad to the computer last night, iTunes informed me that it was about to erase all the stuff on iPad in favour of my now completely empty back-up library.  Just in time, I withdrew my finger from the sync button.  Being a techno-dummy, I didn’t panic but relegated the problem to my techie husband.  After three hours, we could find no solution or cause and I’m yet to back-up.

This – has – happened – before!  Both my children periodically lose all their music from their iPods because iTunes has synched them with an empty library.  Our online searches last night showed that many, many, many other people have suffered the same fate at iTunes’ unclean hands.  I’m in a position of having to contact Apple to get this sorted out when I would rather write hate mail.  (If you Google ‘I hate iTunes’, you’ll see that this is a common feeling.)

2. The evil Apple empire

I am now prey to the empire.  This is by way of being a meta-catch.

Let me give you an example of the evilness I mean.  iPad doesn’t have a camera despite that it would obviously be incredibly useful for, for instance, video conferencing.  Did Steve Jobs just forget?  As if.  iPad is in fact camera-ready, and reasonable rumours abound that a camera is planned for the next generation machine.  Now why would Apple hold off for the first gen?  To get us to upgrade to version two, of course, and to raise the price of the damn thing.  Even if I resist upgrading, I’ll be a slave by then – either angry and envious or forking out the money.

So this Christmas present might be just the writing kick I need or the start of my decline into a nerdish hell.  I’ll let you know.

Anyone can be a great writer.

December 5, 2010

EminemThere, I’ve said it.  And it’s my firm belief and manifesto.  Many will disagree with me, but it doesn’t make it less true.  If you want, you can be a great writer.  You can write exactly the story or poem or song or article or book that you most want to read.  You can write it so that not one word is less than wonderful.

Great writing comes from developing individual talent.  Whose talent?  Yours.

As long as you have the passion. Listen to the passion instead of your imaginary friend called ego who says, ‘Who do you think you are pretending to be Shakespeare, eh?’  Even Shakespeare had to contend with that voice, and he dealt with it by handing it over to his characters. Here’s Hamlet in the thick of it: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.’

As long as you have the nerve. Develop your own style, and develop it to the max.  Don’t compromise on this.  If it’s your thing to write a 2000 word short story exploring middle class angst in the age of divorce, then by all means go ahead.  But you might have an urge to write the perfect shopping list instead.  Follow that urge, not the dictates of the comps in the back of your writing centre’s newsletter.

  • Australian poet Claire Gaskin wrote a poem called ‘Dad’ that is simply a list of the books in the man’s library.  It is beautiful.  (Thanks to Tricia Bertram for introducing me to this poet/m.)
  • Andy Griffiths , children’s writer, wrote worthy stuff for years until he gave into the urge to write what he really thought was funny: bum jokes.  Turns out kids thought they were funny too, and Andy’s books are now New York Times bestsellers.
  • Some people write fabulous sleazy porn.  That’s just their thing.  More power to them!

Don’t turn your stories into clones. If you must be influenced by other writers, only follow the ones you totally love.  Dr Zeuss, Annie Proulx, or that rapper you heard at the club last Friday night.

Be sceptical about EVERY writing rule. (‘Show don’t tell’ can be restrictive.  Yes, it can.)

Don’t worry that you don’t know ‘how’ to write. You do.  You just have to find the key to unlock it.  I highly recommend Freefall and also Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which will give you tools to discover the courage to write what’s already in your subconscious.

If you don’t write English good, don’t let it stop you.  Seriously.  Jane Austen?  That doyenne of stylish syntax and polished punctuation?  It’s been discovered that her early drafts were messy and ungrammatical.  She had a good editor, that’s all.

Don’t write for the publishers.  Even if you desperately want to get published.  A well-known Australian publisher recently advised aspiring novelists only to submit work that was ‘about communication, not self-expression’.  Sounds fair enough, yeah?  But think about this.  In any conversation, do you want to be told the truth or only what the other person thinks you want to hear?  Your most meaningful writing will come from deep within your heart and damn the consequences.  Of course, it’s about self-expression.

Practise, practise, practiseStephen King put it best when he gave his own writing lesson number 1: ‘Read a lot and write a lot’.

Strive for perfection. Your own perfection, your own terms.

How to sum this up?  I’ll leave it to one of the greatest living writers of English, a writer who is still reviled by most of the world for his out-there work.  Through the early hatred of his peers, his own massive self-doubt, and lack of education and support, he has never given up.  I have no argument with those who say he’s a genius.  No one puts it with more force and less bullshit.  In his own words, the eminent Eminem:

Don’t let em say you ain’t beautiful.  They can all get fucked.  Just stay true to you.

Photo by Courtney Bolton

How to get more out of narrative point of view

November 16, 2010

Some fiction pundits have rigid ideas about POV, the perspective from which a story is told.  ‘Never use second person unless giving instructions,’ they say with forefinger raised, or ‘First person novels are too much all about me.’  It makes me immediately want to pen a story in the second person plural: ‘You found yourselves muttering to each other that you wasted your money coming to this fiction seminar.  In fact, in the break you agreed you’d all go home early and write any damn way you please from now on.’

A commitment to stories written only from a certain POV is like only looking at landscape paintings.

So, here are the different POVs and some reasons you might not have considered for using them.

First person singular

Think of the style and language (and even spelling) possibilities when your main character is the one doing the actual writing.

My legal name is Alexander Perchov.  But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.  Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her.  If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.

First person plural

The royal we?  The Greek chorus?  The ‘we’ of the general public and society’s will?  The individual who is trying to disguise his or her close interest and involvement in the story by implicating all of us?

  • Example: Jeffrey Eugenides, Virgin Suicides Anonymous narrators reconstruct the story from their research, decades after the virgins die.  The use of first person plural gives the events the quality of legend:

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

Second person

The ‘you’ who is really I, the one telling the story.  More than any other perspective, this one beckons to the reader to come over here and stand with the narrator.  For this reason, it’s intensely intimate. Good for ramping up fear.  Think of the three different camera perspectives used in Jaws before a shark attack.  There’s the shot of the swimmer from the air, then the shot of the swimmer’s dangling legs from under the water (the shark’s view), and then the shot across the water as if the viewer is dog paddling alongside the swimmer.  Although you might imagine that the shark’s view is the scariest, the last shot across the water actually has the most impact because it makes you identify so closely with the swimmer’s vulnerability.

  • Example: Tim Winton, Long, Clear View Winton’s book of tales, The Turning, contains stories told from different characters’ POVs, in first and third person, some of them dealing with the same tragic events.  Only one story is told in the second person, and coming across it suddenly about halfway through the book gives you a jolt, as if you’re bumping into someone you didn’t want to meet.  The tension is palpable from the opening sentences:

You lie awake and listen to the rumble of talk through the fibro wall as it thins out into pent-up whispering.  From the old man’s sighs and your mother’s patient murmur, you know that nothing’s going right.

Third person omniscient

The old standard can be jazzed up.  Use it, for instance, to deliberately flout the ‘show don’t tell’ rule.

  • Example: Charles Dickens, Bleak House No one does high moral dudgeon better than Dickens.  He’s at his best when he’s not leaving the story to speak for itself but, instead, giving the reader his omniscient opinion about it.  Here he is, letting us know that a pauper has just died:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

Isn’t that magnificent?  And it’s such a no-no in modern schools of fiction writing.

Third person intimate

A character tells the story as if they’re simply relating true events as they happened, but their own personality, prejudices and experiences are stamped all over it.  Interesting when your narrator is unreliable because they’re a liar, goofy or just blind to certain possibilities.  You can create a dual ironic narrative: your narrator’s version of the story and another reality, unspoken, beneath the surface.  Of course, you can do this with first person too, but with third person intimate, there seems to be a greater disconnect between the narration, because it’s written as if it’s objective, and the truth.

  • Example: Fran Macdonald, Wombat Blues Okay, yes, this is my own novel.  I wrote it in third person intimate because Joel, my main character, love him as I do, is self-absorbed but not very self-reflexive.  He tends to blunder through life often misinterpreting people and even his own motivations, and that distinction – between his take on the world and reality – is central to the story.  Here he is being totally together and not at all shit scared about how’s he getting on with his best friend Sebastian:

Joel had a cold shower and put on a load of washing before breakfast.  He was cool, he was tough, he could handle anything.  He’d checked the look in the mirror and that’s what it was – cool and tough.  And philosophical.  Yeah, that was it.  So Sebastian was dark on him.  Well, they’d talk and they’d work it out.  No sweat.

What next?

I recommend the Wikipedia page on POV for a different and fuller explanation, if you want to know more.  That page also lists many great examples to explore.  But you know that’s not the first thing you should do, don’t you?  That’s right, go ahead and try writing something from a POV you don’t usually try.  This is particularly useful if you’re stuck.  Write the next scene in your current story as ‘you’ instead of ‘she’ and just see what your imagination unleashes.  You can always change it back.

Photo by: Fairuz Othman