Wednesday, July 8, 2015

DOES AN EDITOR NEED AN EDITOR? - my last post (maybe) - but see note below

Interesting question. Like many interesting questions, it has several answers. The short answer is: it depends. The long answer is that it depends on the work, its purpose, and its importance. It also depends on what one means by “editor”.

For example, I don’t often seek advice for any post here before I publish it. When I do, it’s usually because of matters of taste, or with querulous questions like “does it make sense?” when it no longer makes sense to me because I’ve been scrabbling around with it for too long.

An eagle-eyed friend lurks, thank goodness, to pounce on spelling or grammar mistakes – I can be careless. The friend acts as proof-reader. But the blog is important only to me. It’s a personal indulgence, a place for me, as a writer, to experiment. If I make mistakes nobody suffers except me. I have welcomed comments and even criticism from readers but this rarely happened. Hallo-o-o – is anybody out there …?

I am both writer and editor. Both roles are self-assigned: I have no diplomas, attended no courses (but taught many), there are no letters after my name. I write because I want to, and read and even edit other people’s writing because they ask me to do it. But – and it’s a big but – it is necessary to make sure what exactly they are expecting me to do. Editing is a wide field. It can mean simply proof-reading. It can mean checking grammar, sentences, punctuation, characterisation, plot development, internal logic, narrative structure and all the other elements that make a story or a book a cohesive whole. And people can get really ratty if they don’t like, or agree with, the assessment. As Somerset Maugham said, “people ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.

Most of my writing is non-fiction. And it is possible to write like a writer, and then read, with editorial pen in hand, as an editor. But fiction is another matter. And in today’s world of e-books, boutique publishers and do-it-yourselfers, the problem most face is not finding writers to write, printers to print and editors to edit. The problem is quality control.

So, the answer to the question posed above is yes, sometimes editors need editors, especially for something as important as a novel. If I ever get “The Diplomatic Corpse” finished I will be looking for someone to cast a beady and critical eye over it before I send it out into the world. 

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I had decided to discontinue this blog (after 237 posts) and get down to some less self-indulgent writing. The break has been refreshing, but I am changing gear again and might just return to this page - perhaps with a change of focus. As they say - watch this space!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Once upon a time – for about 37 years in fact – I was a book reviewer. This was a dream job for someone who lives and breathes books of all kinds. All that was missing in the amenities department were the sofa and the chocolates. The pay was derisory, and only those who would rather read than eat would contemplate working for a very few dollars and a free copy of a book – and not care. 

Clive James is one of my favourite writers.  Mostly he writes essays (perhaps my favourite non-fiction genre) on a wide variety of topics, and when I was sent “The Revolt of the Pendulum” (Picador) to review, I fell on it with glee.  It is, to quote from the blurb, “part memoir, part conversation, part performance and part state-of-the-nation address”. It’s a real treat.

He puts book reviewers, including himself, in their place, according them what he calls the tiny immortality of termites, and sometimes helps his fellow book reviewers out by reminding them of some small but pertinent detail they have unaccountably forgotten to mention.  Unlike many of us termites, James is also a poet, novelist, essayist, media celebrity, tango dancer and literary journalist. Astonishingly well-read, he is sublimely, unrepentantly opinionated, and he can be forgiven because what he has to say about anything is said with such crackling style and wit that we have to laugh even while questioning our own wishy-washy opinions.

In this book, among other matters, he frets about the decline of literary standards, discusses detective novels as travel books, takes six pages to fillet a single very bad sentence written by a hapless sports reporter, and discusses racing drivers, a bag lady, and the business of being a celebrity.

I’ve been clearing out my bookshelves for months now, preparing for the demolition of the house and my removal to somewhere else as yet unknown but almost certainly with less room than I currently enjoy. Throwing out books – any books – really hurts. But Clive James is safe. He is eminently re-readable and he will be going with me no matter what.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


There is nothing worse than finding myself at the end of the day and knowing that I haven’t tried.  What did Sylvia Plath say?  The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.

There are days like that.  You start with good intentions – but you must tidy the workplace before you can get going.  First step towards a tidy mind is a tidy desk, somebody smug probably said.  (Empty desk = empty mind?)  Another cup of coffee perhaps.  Mmm, nice. The novel isn’t going well and I’m bored with James – no, I’ve changed his name, it’s Peter now – does that sound OK? Does it go with whatever his surname is? Forgotten it already.  Bad sign.

Why am I bored with James/Peter?  He isn’t alive yet, that’s why. He doesn’t have a personality at all, let alone a personality that’s interesting. He doesn’t do anything unless I push him, he’s just there. I’ve written 40,000 words and he’s still hanging about in the shadows, lurking.

Perhaps it might be an idea to do a bit more to the family history – get that anecdote about the dotty aunt done. Easy (boring?) mechanical sort of job, not too much thinking or imagination involved, just the facts. But first, see if the postie’s been.  Ah, goodie – the Listener!  Make a sandwich – too early but hey, early lunch, bit of a read, maybe do the sudoku, then I can really get down to some work.

Two hours later, sudoku and crossword done: Dammit the lawn needs mowing. Should have done it yesterday, better do it now, it’ll probably rain tomorrow.  There, that’s better.  Thirsty.  Juice.  A little rest, sit down on the sofa on the deck.

Heavens, look at the time! Too late for any work now.  Tomorrow – yes tomorrow, I really will get down to it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


There is a chest of drawers in the garage that is more or less inaccessible all winter because the drawers stick fast. AJ – an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer as long as the doing involved a big hammer and six inch nails – kept his treasures in there. Some of the contents related to his precious bicycles, which had special tools a brain surgeon might envy, but the rest is eclectic and collected over the years.

 It was a terrifying sight to see AJ load an electric drill, press the trigger, and advance on a helpless piece of timber.  He had no truck with the dictum to measure twice and cut once. His idea of measuring something was to flap a tape over it and decide that he needed to drill the hole six and a half centimetres – and a little bit more – round about there. His saw-cuts were never quite straight. There have been more holes in walls in our house than were ever necessary to hang the pictures and mirrors.

AJ’s one-offs are legendary. The house is full of bookcases and tables, all different – that’s why they are one-offs. Few have legs, most have slab sides. Some have shelves. Some do just as well as seats. They more or less stand up straight and are sturdy, even through earthquakes. All are painted with dark brown timbacryl which is really designed for outdoors – fences and the like. If anything got a little scratched and battered AJ simply hosed them down, opened the vat of paint and splashed another coat over them. The word for AJ’s one-offs was “rustic”. He was always delighted with his handiwork, and we were never short of somewhere to sit, or to rest a cup or a plate.

Back to the chest of drawers, which is due for a clear-out. The top drawer is the only one I have really needed access to, because it contains the hammers, the pliers, all the screwdrivers and a few other assorted metal things. I’ve been keeping that drawer well candle-waxed so I could access what I needed. The other drawers have been ignored. Around November last year (that’s spring for northern hemisphere readers), knowing that I would need to start clearing out ready to move, I began to heave at the handles and slowly, slowly over the next weeks each drawer gave up the struggle and let me pull it open.

OMG. Electric things. Gloves. Cables. Plugs. A grease gun. Bits for the drill. Boxes of – what exactly? Jars that rattle. Oh well, seeing that I have had no use for any of them in the last few years, I won’t miss them. Out they go. Nothing like a good clear out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Few writers would remain sanguine at the thought of their notes, fleeting memoirs, scraps of working ideas and literary experiments being published. And even fewer writers would reveal such power and passion as was found in four notebooks hidden in a cupboard after the death of Marguerite Duras.

She was French, born in Indochina where she spent her childhood, and became a novelist and playwright, notably for the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  During the second world war, she was involved with the French Resistance, pretended to collaborate with the occupying Germans, became a member of the Communist Party, and later took part in the interrogation of suspected informers. 

Duras filled these notebooks in the years during and just after the war, and they contain sketches and rough drafts of what later became stories and novels, unmistakably informed by what was happening in her time and place. As well, and more visceral, there are intensely personal diary-like entries which she wrote instinctively during times of danger and emotional crisis. These were far from being self-indulgent rants, they arose from an icy rage at what people in wartime France had to endure. 

It is tempting to think that Duras was aware of what she was doing, that for example she was observing and recording while she waited through desperately long, agonised weeks before her emaciated husband was rescued from Dachau. Afterwards, his condition remained so pitiful that she had to stand back a little, writing not of “his” neck but of “the” neck which was so thin that the fingers of one hand could encircle it, and “the” hand from which the nails had fallen off.  The wife could hardly bear to see, but the writer could observe.

There are examples of notes written at the time of an event, then a roughed-out story of the same event turned into fiction. The birth and death of her first baby centres on the cruelty of an evil sister/nun who, Duras says viciously, was one of the three or four people she would have liked to gut, although the story that resulted was more objective while still allowing the reader to come to the same conclusion. 

Some pieces are mere fragments: a holiday in Italy with friends; resigned musings of a woman who is only a wife; a scene on the Rue de la Gaieté; six lines on the difficulties of writing at a round table. These are of writerly interest, small gems that reveal Marguerite Duras’s mind and eye at work.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


There is good mess and bad mess, creative mess, debatable mess and scary mess. There is mess that is counter productive and mess that saves lives. In a book called A Perfect Mess that I reviewed (with some glee) a while ago, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman questioned everything about the messes that we live with and sometimes try to control, from kitchen cupboards tottering with tins to corporations, cities, airlines and nuclear power plants.

To some people, the idea that mess might be interesting, helpful or constructive is maddening. They fret if linen in the closet is not stacked properly. They yell at children to tidy their rooms. They circulate memos demanding that office desks be cleared of clutter. They write reports, instructions, rules and schedules. They require order.

Abrahamson and Freedman sided with us slobs who don’t go along with this. They suggested that fussy housekeeping made other people uncomfortable. That too much cleanliness can cause allergies in children and breed heartier bugs with a resistance to antibacterial cleansers. What works for bugs works for children, went the theory. Let children develop their own resistance to the bugs and allergens because the world is a dirty, messy place and they might as well get used to it.

Like self-improvement books, this one had an epiphany on practically every page.  Neatness can be limiting, argued the authors as they described how a hospital was organised in response to suggestions from patients; how an architect designed a building but refused to supply blueprints so the builders had to think their way through the job; how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because his laboratory was grubby enough to grow mould in a petri dish.

Companies waste resources trying to impose order because they miss opportunities to stumble upon innovations, while their more slap-dash but creative employees become anxious and unproductive. Forward planning is just crystal-gazing; remember how, in 1943, the chairman of IBM declared that the world market for computers would peak at five.

Abrahamson and Freedman made provocative comments about many things, including speed bumps (they cause accidents), voice-menus (inefficient and they make customers ratty), and fancy filing systems (waste of time and money).  Mess, they said, can lead to creative thinking and the magic of serendipity. Painters, writers and musicians couldn’t function without it. Flexibility is more useful for dealing with unexpected situations, and solutions to problems sometimes come out of the blue if there isn’t a rule book to get in the way.

The authors’ message was that life is hopelessly messy so why waste time trying to clear it up? Relax and everyone would be more productive and happier – except of course for the neat-freaks.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


The old sofa has been on the verandah for twenty years, rain, hail, snow or sunshine. It was second-hand when we got it, and its two armchairs are long gone, but the sofa was spared. It has been shifted a couple of times – once when the roof above it began leaking, and once when I decided, in an uncharacteristic fit of house-beautiful-itis, to clean up and re-coat the decking. The rest of the time it has stood against the wall, peacefully subsiding into decrepitude.

Its upholstery has faded from a cheerful chintz (how old-fashioned that sounds) to a sun-bleached nothingness. It doesn’t seem to have absorbed much of the coffee, or wine, that has been spilt over it, although lifting the cushions reveals old sandwich crumbs along with the dried leaves and the crisp remains of insects. The stuffing has been escaping through various holes in the fabric for some time now but it is a slow process.

It has been alleged, but never proved, that a family of mice has lived in, behind or under the sofa, undisturbed for generations, safe from marauding cats and fussy housekeeping. Fanciful stories have been woven about the mice but they know their place, keep themselves to themselves and don’t bother me.

Sometimes a neighbouring cat – Hoover or Scratty – curls up in a corner of the sofa. I welcome either, no longer having any of my own. Stinky was another matter – a dirty aggressive tom that hung around the neighbourhood until his people moved away. One morning I found old Max there – the large black dog from further down who was miserably tied up most of the time, and must have got loose somehow. He looked sheepish when I sat down beside him, and when his owner turned up after my phone call, Max was clearly unwilling to leave with her. I was relieved when, a short time later, he was given a very good home elsewhere.

Twice I have tried to give the sofa away to young people who were going off to university in Dunedin. Students there have a tradition of burning old sofas in the streets while celebrating and I was willing to sacrifice mine in a good cause. Luckily my offers were rejected, and I have continued to spend time on the deck in dreamy contemplation of nothing much while waiting for the inspiration that poet Carolyn McCurdie says hides “in shadows of ploughed furrows” (1)

Not for long now, though. The bulldozer is lurking. The mice will have to move house. Hoover and Scratty must find other places to visit. The sofa must soon be carted away. Where is a student when you want one?
(1) Carolyn McCurdie: Where do ideas come from?