Category: writing

Writing in the doldrums

By , 1 July 2011 7:53 pm

Yes folks, I know that I’m not posting now, but I have written an article for the Spectulative Faith website which you can find here.

Words, words, words

By , 4 September 2009 6:21 pm

Well, our long summer break has finally drawn to a close. We are now in the ‘phoney war’ stage of meeting students, preparing notes and lesson plans but not actually teaching. That starts properly on Wednesday. It’s a curious moment: the relaunch of what is in most ways a fairly breathless sequence that runs on – head over heels – until May.

Anyway I’ve had some really good news in that, although I was due to teach Geography this autumn along with the perennial Geology and Environmental Studies, the demand for Geology is such that I am being taken off Geography. I’m very pleased about this, not because I don’t like Geography but because at ‘A’ level it is effectively a social science and involves a language that quite simply I neither possess nor understand. So when a Geology paper asks me about earthquakes I can waffle on for ages to students about how they should answer with reference to their tectonic cause and effect and all the various scientific factors: I fully understand the question. But when I come to a geography paper (and I don’t think I’m totally distorting a genuine question) and I read ‘Why do people’s perceptions of earthquake hazards vary?’ I am useless. Actually, I’m probably worse than useless because I would start explaining about plate tectonics and various geological phenomena when, no doubt, the answer is all to do with social, economic and demographic impacts. It’s a little bit like doing The Times crossword or something similar: you look at a clue and immediately think you know the answer, but of course the real answer is something utterly different. So that’s largely a question of a language code that I have failed to crack.

This year we have an added complication of an impending merger between Gorseinon College (where I teach, very academic) and Swansea College (not very academic). All being well things will work out but it’s not an obvious marriage: the hope is though that we will stay pretty much as we are with our generally excellent results undiminished. In the draft document I was given today there was any amount of nuanced statements that we are all trying to read something into. What exactly are they hinting at? Words again.

Another piece of news is that I have just received the cover proofs for a book that is coming out in February called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal by J. John with Chris Walley. This is a book-length treatment of the issues raised by the great parable of the Prodigal (and parables in general). It’s published by Hodder and I am living in hope that it does well. There is another linguistic nuance in the fact that the book is by ‘J John with Chris Walley’. This is evidently supposed to convey something different to J John and Chris Walley, but I am blowed if I know what. Words!

Finally, and probably of more relevance to most of you, is the fact that I have been working on a new fiction book. I wasn’t going to mention it at this stage but I had an e-mail yesterday from the nice lady at Hodder I have been working with, saying she was moving on. So I seized the moment and asked if she could recommend any literary agents and got the obvious response ‘well what sort of a book is it?’ So I spent last night tidying up the one existing chapter and doing a two-page summary. It’s very much a standalone work and it has no resemblance or linkage to the Lamb among the Stars. I don’t want to say too much more about it because it is based on an eminently copyable idea. What I can say is that I have aimed for popularity and have done all I can to make the first chapter as arresting and compelling as possible. Anyway that has now gone on to Hodder and who knows? In the meantime, if there are any literary agents out there who want a really good story then why not get in touch? And here again I will no doubt find myself carefully scrutinising any comment from Hodders or an agent; trying to decode the real meaning behind what is said.

These are just four instances which remind us that words mean more than their dictionary definition. They are curiously slippery and elusive things; so much depends on context, intonation and interpretation. There are lots of deep theological reasons for the Incarnation (‘the Word became flesh’) such as the fact that God had to become a member of the human race in order to legitimately pay the price for human sin. I can’t help but also wonder whether the very elusive nature of words means that sometimes they have to be supplemented with actions to make them unambiguous. In the life and death of Christ we see something louder and clearer than any verbal proclamation.

A miscellany of topics

By , 28 November 2008 7:25 pm

This week, I was intending to take a brief break from discussing cultural matters to share some local news. However I cannot resist making the point that it seems that no American president will be elected unless he (or she) talks openly and comfortably about God, while no British Prime Minister will be elected if he (or she) does. I would like to think that there has been progress in this area but I’m afraid Tony Blair has rather ruined this because he did bring God into matters and now his stock is very low indeed. I think it will be some time before any politician here has the courage even to say ‘God bless you’ at the end of any talk to the nation. By the way, here is another difference: Americans clearly have not the slightest problem in confidently asking the Almighty to look favourably upon America. Indeed their tone is sometimes so confident that one is inclined to suspect that a certain overlap exists in their minds between the Kingdom of Heaven and the United States of America. In contrast, Britons of the 21st century would never dream of invoking the Almighty in the political arena. Americans get embarrassed when, in the context of politics people do not mention God; we get embarrassed when they do.

And now to family news. The first item of news is that two weeks ago our younger son Mark got married to a delightful young lady called Alice in central London where they both work. I don’t think they would mind if I attached a photograph.

So we travelled up from the provinces and stayed a couple of nights in London in order to attend. It was a great time and the Christian witness took centre stage. In fact the sermon was outspokenly and unashamedly evangelistic and took as its basis the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (‘bridesmaids’? there are hard issues of cultural equivalence here). The fact that both our sons are happily married raises the interesting question as to whether ‘parenting’ is now over for us. In one sense the answer is ‘yes’ but I suppose we probably continue in an advisory role until such time as we are senile. Oh yes, and young Simeon turned up to the wedding looking every bit the normal three-month-old baby. He seems to be responding well to the daily hormonal supplements.

The second piece of news is to do with books. No, I haven’t sold the film rights to Lamb among the Stars; I think that may be a longer haul than I had expected. But I am signing a contract with Hodders to co-write a short book with the British evangelist J. John centred on the parable of Prodigal Son. Of course a lot has already been written on this but we are hoping to come at it from a fresh but authentic angle. I have a lot of Lebanese anecdotes which clarify matters and bring some of the issues into sharper focus. Anyway the nice thing about Hodders is that they get their books out into the secular market; here they differ from the specifically Christian book companies who seem to be fishing in the ever smaller pond of Christian book readers. Once I get this out of the way, all being well in May, I want to talk to them about future fiction projects. So it’s no television for me for the next five months.

Anyway I have a sermon to finish for our Chinese Fellowship in Swansea so must dash. The problem is that I feel it incumbent upon me to e-mail the text to the translator beforehand; she is very good but I think it’s helpful that she has a chance to read it all through first.

Every blessing


Latest news

By , 12 September 2008 9:05 pm

First of all many thanks to those who prayed, because things are now a lot better with young Simeon, our young and somewhat ailing grandson. On Monday the diagnosis of CAH (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) was confirmed (although there are various different types). Anyway Simeon will have to be on steroids for the rest of his life, but the specialist is quite encouraged and encouraging and it sounds like he should be able to live a normal life. His parents will however have to do quite a bit of chemical juggling early on and there will be some fairly regular blood tests. At the moment he is still in hospital but merely to see his weight built up. But the outlook is good. Thank you Lord.

What else is news in this part of the world? Well, today was something of a small but significant landmark for me. I taught nothing but geology today in all four 1.5 hour teaching slots. In other words I have enough students who want to do geology that I now have two groups at AS level (year 12) and two at A2 (year 13). In fact my total student numbers are now around 70 which is a college record. Clearly I must be doing something right. This, of course, feeds into the whole issue to do with writing. Yes, I would love to do nothing but full-time writing but teaching provides a regular salary and frankly this year I am probably going to make nothing whatsoever from my fiction books. Not only that: I am apparently quite good at what I do as a teacher. My college is also actually a pretty good place to work; a fact brought out by the kindness and sympathy of my colleagues in the last week. So I really don’t know when you’re going to get this promised Seventh Ship manuscript. I also seem to be preaching almost every Sunday for the next couple of months as well. I really must learn to say ‘no’!

A good friend and sometime reader of this blog sent me an article from the British newspaper The Guardian pointing out that in a recent survey of nearly a quarter of a million university students geology achieved the highest satisfaction level with 95% of students being happy with the subject. Why this should be the case is not immediately clear but I suspect several factors contribute to it. Geology is very varied and you never stick with one topic too long, we do lots of nice field trips and at the moment there are lots of jobs available at the end of the course. There is one other factor and it is this; geology has resolutely resisted postmodernism and almost all of types of modern philosophical outlook. It is something of – to use an apposite phrase – a dinosaur. Unlike some geography departments (on whom be peace) we do not do such things as ‘Concepts of Lesbian Space’ and ‘Masculinity and Maps’. Geology departments are much more prosaic, and again to use an apposite phrase, are ‘down to earth’. They centre on facts and the training to use those facts in life outside the campus. I suspect there are implications here for Christian ministry but at the end of the first full week of teaching I am too tired to draw them out.

Blessings on you all.

Two ways of writing a book

By , 15 February 2008 8:40 pm

Some news first. I am away in the Midlands at the moment at the end of half-term and so am somewhat technologically isolated. Let’s hope then that this blog makes it out into cyberspace. Secondly, next week, there is a concerted series of reviews on Shadow and Night by various reviewers associated with the Christian Science Fiction and fantasy group. So all sorts of people will be visiting my blog and hopefully saying nice things. So regulars, please be on your best behaviour!

Anyway I am busy with an editing project at the moment which, in addition to my normal job (the one that pays the salary) is keeping me pretty busy. I’m also finding myself preaching fairly regularly and am standing in for someone this Sunday; your prayers would be welcome. Nevertheless in my spare moments my thoughts are turning to the next sequence of books: provisionally entitled the Seventh Ship trilogy. At this stage, all I’m doing is putting thoughts and ideas together. Yet as I do this I have noticed that I am proceeding along a double track and think it worth sharing this.

One of the things I’m doing is factual. I am creating a world. What is the geography? What is the climate? What is the economic system? Who speaks what language? What is the level of technology? I am writing all those things that would be included if the CIA factbook or Wikipedia had articles on my imagined world (and know I don’t have a name for it yet). This sort of thing is very intellectual, very logical and in one sense a long way removed from writing narrative. It is also frankly very dull; if you don’t know how dull such things can be you have never read Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Much, perhaps most, of the information will never make it into print but will hopefully lurk in the background giving some sense of depth and reality.

Yet the second thing I’m doing is much more disorganised. It is, as it were, seeing pictures. I am imagining, or perhaps being, given images – snapshots – clips, if you like, of people, places and events. So for instance the other day I came up with a long line of steep-sided volcanoes rising up out of the sea and the fading away into the cloudy distance. I have pictures of a dispute in a dusty library, of a warm and sweaty night in reedbeds with something nameless lurking in the rippling waters nearby, I have seen people looking up to a distant range of mountains with fear in their eyes. These images are all largely disconnected. I had no idea how they fit together, if they do fit. Frankly, I do not really know whether I will use them all.

What is interesting is how contrasted these two strands are. The first is clearly much more cerebral and surely factual; it comes from the head. The second is much more intuitive and it emotional, sometimes it defies rationality. It clearly come from the heart or whatever organ it is that is genuinely creative. Both however are essential. I presume that readers want lively events in a living world and it is hard to see how one could write a long series of novels without doing both the creating the background situation and the dreaming up of the tale. Even in fantasy worlds, facts must be matched with experiences.

Normally I try and end my blog with some sort of meaningful theological observation. I’m not sure I have one here. But it does seem to me to demonstrate the intricacy both of writing and what we are as human beings. There’s a complexity to us, my friends, which speaks to me more of us being made in the Master’s image than being the product of blind chance over however many million years you want.

Back from holidays

By , 15 August 2007 8:37 pm

Just arrived back from two weeks in Ireland to find a small cheque for book royalties and about half a dozen encouraging e-mails and blog entries. Thanks for both! Our time in Ireland was largely centred around a big family reunion, which went well.

Two things relevant to writing emerged. One was that two young men had a chance to read the manuscript of The Infinite Day and were embarrassing in their praise. It seems to work. The other thing was that I began to put down a lot of notes for a new series, which is a sort of spin-off from the Lamb among the Stars. It is tentatively called the Seventh Ship series and as I envisage it, it will run to three volumes. What was happening when I was writing notes was that characters and situations seem to be popping into my mind saying ‘Could you use me?’ or ‘Would I be able to play a part?’ This was very encouraging because I felt I had covered so much ground in the Lamb among the Stars that I was worried I had exhausted interesting scenarios and people. Anyway, it doesn’t look like it: there’s any number of fun plots, heroes and villains. However, I have too much on at the moment to do very much with it other than make odd sketches and outlines. But I am open to offers.

Now back to Ireland. I’m afraid we got badly hit by the weather. The trouble is, we live in a cool, wet, Celtic coastal region and found that we had traded it for something very similar. Having lived in a Mediterranean country, and got used to the warmth of France on previous holidays, we felt the cold dampness didn’t help. I was moved, therefore to come up with a few tongue-in-cheek rules on how to know that you are in the wrong place for a holiday if you like the sun. So with apologies to the Irish tourist board (and I’m told last year was lovely), here we go.

You know you are in the wrong place for a holiday when:

  • Shops sell more insect repellent than suntan lotion.
  • Picture postcards major on waves breaking violently against cliffs.
  • Sports outlets are full of wetsuits.
  • The area you are in is covered by more lakes and bogs than dry land.
  • The guidebooks talk about ‘the luminous light’ and the ‘clean air’.
  • Shops sell scarves and waterproofs in August.
  • The traditional architecture is low buildings huddled behind hills and stone walls.
  • The area has been a centre of emigration throughout history (ever asked what drove them to leave?).
  • There seems to be no indigenous word for air conditioner.
  • You arrive at a bed and breakfast to find that the heating is on in mid summer.
  • Reptiles have given up the unequal struggle and become extinct.
  • There are no ‘help us to conserve water’ signs.
  • The sheep, plants (or people) are described as hardy.
  • Trees lie at an angle to the vertical.
  • The tourist brochures describe the landscape ‘cut by the waves, lashed by the wind and washed by the rain.’ Hmmm.
  • Notices on beaches talk about the danger of exposure, rather than sunburn.

My take on Harry Potter (and I’m sure JKR is really worried)

By , 27 July 2007 5:00 pm

That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m going to retaliate. She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named made £1 million an hour on Saturday. I have held off on the HP series waiting for the dénouement but now, as my final blog before going on holiday, I shall give my take on HP7 and the series.

Now I have to make a confession. I gave up on the series two books earlier but I was so intrigued by the hype over the last one that I read the Wikipedia summary and then speed-read the last 50 or so pages of the HP7. Sorry guys, but life is short (and art is long and HP7 isn’t the latter). Anyway, if there are great plot spoilers below I apologise for offending the faithful.

Let’s get the praise out of the way first. JKR is imaginative, celebrates some good values, has some clever ideas and err… looks good on pictures.

1) Rowling was never a particularly good stylist, but she appears to have actually got worse. Perhaps now she is a megastar, she thinks she can dispense with editors. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) review described her writing as ‘barely adequate’. And that’s generous. I know good writing when I read it, and this isn’t it.

2) Linked to this, is the fact that JKR she has no sense of what is best called ‘architecture’. We are running to the climax of an epic series so all the energy should be building up to be released in some final climactic confrontation. Instead, we get … well, she doesn’t deliver.

3) The plot is labyrinthine and often downright confusing. And no, I don’t think it’s because I had skipped about 1,800 pages. The websites seem abuzz with unresolved issues, and possible contradictions and superfluous characters.

4) I’m old-fashioned, but she is too ambiguous. The big question before the book came out was ‘Will Harry die?’ The big question now is ‘Did Harry die?’ I think she wanted to kill him off but couldn’t stomach it.

5) The book is pitched at an odd level. There are signs that Rowling is (sad to say) taking herself seriously and even aspiring to literature. So we get the portentous quotes at the start of the book. Yet the book inhabits two worlds simultaneously; the children’s story of sweets and spells and the black Gothic fantasy possibly saying something meaningful about life are uneasily intermingled.

6) There is an epilogue of unspeakable Middle-Class tweeness. ‘Nuff said.

7) The weaknesses in Rowling’s worldview are now exposed. There were those in the Christian camp who believed she was a Christian writer, albeit a very subtle one. I think that view is now impossible to hold. Those atheists who feared that God was going to walk on stage in the last book are doubtless relieved. He doesn’t: he’s gone missing. It seems plain that if Christianity exists for JKR as a writer, it exists as a set of ethical ideas and images merely to be ransacked for effect. For all the ‘superstition’ in the books, there is no overruling deity or divine powers. Despite the magic (which in most cases is little more than an alternative technology) it’s a bleak atheistic world out there. It’s sad. I had hoped for a clear redemptive death or the ‘Deeper Magic’ but no, it’s not there. Ironically, I think the American religious right were correct, but for the wrong reasons. The books are problematic, not because they promote Satanism but because they promote secularism.

Anyway, I’m on holiday for two weeks in Ireland. I will try and access the web, but I can’t guarantee it. For those who pray, do pray that when the manuscript of The Infinite Day reaches Tyndale on Monday it will be greeted with pleasure and a determination to push the book and the now finished series with all possible power.


The three Cs of rewriting

By , 13 July 2007 7:14 pm

The good news for my fans is that I have now finished the first draft of The Infinite Day, and with college now over for the summer I am now working full-time on tidying it up. What does this involve? Well as a lay preacher, I tend to see things in threes, all beginning with the same letter. And here I am aiming for the three Cs.

1) Concision

Although we use concise a lot, the noun concision is not an everyday word, which is a pity because it is a useful one. The dictionary defines concision ‘as terseness and economy in writing and speaking achieved by expressing a great deal in just a few words’. Just so: in other words, it is the art of summarising something very complicated in such a way that the reader grasps it in a paragraph instead of having to wade through six pages. In writing things down for the first time you tend to be profligate with words. In rewriting, you try and boil your descriptions and dialogue down to the bare minimum. Sometimes concision requires that a prized bit of writing gets the axe!

2) Clarity

There are all sorts of things here. So, if you are describing a meeting, clarity involves making it absolutely obvious who is saying what. Or, if it’s an action sequence, where more or less everybody is and who does what to whom. The last thing you want is readers to pause with furrowed brow and backtrack for a couple of paragraphs until they are absolutely certain what is going on. (Incidentally, this is the real problem with experimental writing: it’s just too much like hard work.) Fairly obviously, clarity and concision can work against each other. Concision demands that something be described briefly, whereas clarity may require lots of words.

3) Consistency

I could use the more filmic word ‘continuity’. At one level, consistency is very easy, if hard work. It is to make sure that the facts match throughout the book. So at a simple level, it is to ensure that a character who has dark hair at the start still has dark hair at the end. But it gets more complicated. Do people speak in a particular voice? Is that consistent throughout? Or do they have similar mannerisms, likes and dislikes throughout? Or imagine A meets B briefly in chapter 1: the astute reader will spot the mistake if when they meet again, twenty chapters later, they have to be introduced. Needless to say in an epic trilogy such as mine, which must be heading for 650,000 words total, the question is not whether there will be continuity errors but how many will there be. (As another aside, my recollection is that there were a large number of continuity errors in the first version of Lord of the Rings, which were only tightened up in later editions.)

That’s all for this week. Hopefully, the manuscript will be in a fit state to print out and give it to my wife on Monday, who is anxiously awaiting it. Fortunately, or otherwise, the weather is so appalling at the moment that there is no temptation to hanker for the great outdoors!

How to finish a big book

By , 1 June 2007 2:28 pm

It has been half term this week, and I have been able to really have a good long go at The Infinite Day. And as I come to the end of the week, I’m able to report that the end is literally in sight. Perhaps another 30 pages to go and lots of notes to work from. However my deadline for manuscript delivery is the last day of July and the fact is that I need to go back to the beginning and tidy up the manuscript. So there is still a lot to be done. If you pray, pray on!

For any would-be writers, I offer a couple of thoughts on this matter of finishing books. The first is that you really do need determination. Writing is hard work, and it’s easy to put it to one side and go for a walk, read a book or surf the web. You have to stick at it.

The second is an odd characteristic; it is ruthlessness. I have a cast of many characters, each of whom have their own foibles, problems and concerns. The temptation to pursue all of these fascinating characters and try to deal with their individual fates has to be resisted. If you’re not careful, you end up creating an infinite world, which of course, requires a book of infinite length. So I have had to curtail all sorts of fascinating matter which has to become the literary equivalent of ‘the road not travelled’. Readers will just have to use their own imaginations to decide what X said to Y after three months absence or what exactly lies behind the terse comment on some minor character ‘he was killed on the battlefield’. (I made that up, but you know what I mean.)

Anyway I must press on and get back to the book. Even blogs can be a diversion.

Have a good week.

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