Review: The God of Small Things

This novel won the Booker Prize in 1997, so I am somewhat tardy in reading this Indian author, Arundhati Roy, whose background interested me almost as much as the novel.  She was born in 1961 in Shillong, Meghalava, India, to Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta and Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned with her mother and brother to Kerala.  In her early career, Roy worked in television and movies, but she became disenchanted with the world of films and began writing her first novel,  The God of Small Things  in 1992, completing it in 1996.   She has since written The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), and a long list of non-fiction works, most of which seem to be associated with her advocacy work.  Ms Roy has opposed India’s nuclear, industrial, and economic development policies, as well as US foreign policy, Israel, the Sri Lankan government, and numerous other initiatives.  She has been a controversial figure in her home country.

Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things was critically acclaimed by major newspapers in the US and Canada.  Ms Roy received and advance of £500,ooo which, along with her prize money, she donated to her causes.  The novel was a commercial success.  Critical response in the UK was somewhat less positive, and the award of the Booker Prize was controversial.  Carmen Callili, a 1996 Booker Prize judge called it ‘execrable’, and The Guardian said its context was ‘profoundly depressing’.

I found the book neither execrable nor profoundly depressing, but I didn’t think it is extraordinary as the New York Times did.

The book is set in the 1960’s in Kerala, India, and much of the story is autobiographical about a somewhat dysfunctional middle class family.  The principle characters are young twins Rahel and her brother Estha, aged about 7, their mother Ammu, who is divorced, and their maternal grandmother, Mammachi.  There are also Chacko, Ammu’s derelict cousin, his English ex-wife, Margaret, their nine-year-old daughter Sophie, and Chacko’s mother – the twins great aunt – Baby Kouchamma.  Gradually emerging from the plot is Velutha, a Paravan untouchable, who is beautiful, competent and Ammu’s lover – the God of Small Things.  There are some terrible things that happen: Estha is molested by a soft drink seller in a movie theater, the twins rebel and go into hiding, Sophie drowns, and Ammu’s affair with Velutha is discovered, but none of these events, in the context of India is depressing.  All, with the exception of Estha’s molestation are the natural flow of events.   As it is told, the assault on Estha seems largely preventable.

The writing is certainly very clever: much of the story is told from Rahel’s point of view, with child-like idiosyncrasy.   The characters are unique and credible, though I have a lingering doubt about the fraught relationship between Ammu and her twins: why did it become so bi-polar?  There is a considerable amount of scene description, such that if it were abbreviated, the book would be at least 15% shorter.  But Ms Roy’s descriptive talents are so imaginative, and with some exceptions, so satisfying, that most readers will forgive her.

If you know India and like India, this is a book that should be read, not because it will help one understand India today, but because it provides a context for today’s India.

Review: Zealot

Leafing through this book in a bookstore, I was attracted by the dedication: “For my wife, Jennifer Jackley, and the entire Jackley clan, whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study”.  I had noticed that the author, Reza Aslan, had been born in Iran, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.  I thought: Here is a book about Jesus, written by someone who was born a Shia Muslim but is married to a Christian; this should be interesting!

Reza Aslan has written two other books with interesting titles: No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion.

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Reza Aslan

The subtitle of Zealot is The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and what Mr Aslan does in this biography is to separate the ‘historical Jesus’ from the religious icon whom Christians adore as the son of God.  While there is no original research contained in this book, Mr Aslan draws on over one hundred and fifty other published books to reach his conclusions which are largely credible and interesting.  He paints a picture of life, culture, politics and religious practices in Palestine in the first century.  It is unlikely that He was a carpenter, but because of the minimal use of wood in most houses, He, like many others, was more likely a day laborer, a builder, a tekton, who may have worked in the rapidly growing, near-by city of Sepphoris.  Nazareth was, during Jesus lifetime, a town of about 1000 residents, mostly poor peasants and day laborers.  There is no evidence that a synagogue existed in Nazareth during Jesus life: the temple in Jerusalem was the religious focus for Jews in Palestine.  It is likely that the gospel writers, who began writing at least forty years after Jesus’ death may have assumed that there was a religious meeting place in Nazareth, because by that time the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans.  Data suggests that the illiteracy rate among Jewish peasants in the first century was about 97%, yet somehow, Jesus was able to read the Torah scrolls in the synagogue.

Mr Aslan argues (successfully) that Jesus was, like many contemporaries a zealot, that is: someone strongly committed to a cause, and that his most clearly documented cause was the reform of the corrupt Jewish priesthood.  In fact this antipathy for the Jewish leadership was still strong when the gospels were written, so that politics may have influences some of the words that the writers put into Jesus’ mouth.  For example, Mr Aslan finds it unlikely that Jesus ever met with Pontius Pilot.  If such a meeting ever occurred, it would have been an extraordinary event, since in the normal course of events, Pontius Pilot merely signed the death warrant where capital punishment was sought by the chief priest.  The scriptural dialogue between Jesus and the Roman essentially absolves Jesus of any crimes and places the blame for his death squarely on the hated chief priest.  (I have always wondered why a crowd that brought Jesus so triumphantly into Jerusalem could so loudly demand his crucifixion!)

This biography makes interesting reading, and it does not hesitate to open and explore nearly every controversy about Jesus: His disciples, parents, relationship with John the Baptist, trials, crucifixion, resurrection, what He said or didn’t say, what He may have thought.  The controversies involving the leadership of the church after Jesus’ death are also examined.  These examinations may extend to the historic translations of the original text, as well as both (or even three) sides of the scholarly arguments.  Cultural, political, military, and economic evidence is brought to bear.

This is clearly a scholarly work.  In addition to the extensive bibliography there are nearly seventy pages of notes for those who have lingering curiosity about statements made in the main text.

For me, the only disappointment is that Mr Aslan has made no attempt after shattering what may be a childish image of Jesus to reconcile the ‘historical Jesus’ with the Son of God.

Review: Nietzsche

I had heard of Nietzsche, the wild German philosopher who averred that “God is dead!” when I was in my late teens.  My college roommate seemed to know about him (and Ayn Rand), but I considered anyone who would make such a stupid remark not worthy of further attention.  And Nietzsche was not among the philosophers studied in the Philosophy 101 course.

But he came to my attention about 10 days ago when there was an hour-long BBC program about the man and his life.  In the program, the “God is dead!” exclamation was attributed to the untimely death of his much-admired father at an early age from a horrible brain disease, and to his view of the culture in late 19th century Europe.  As Nietzsche saw it, the culture was wantonly secular, and self-serving.  People cared only about entertainment, pleasure, wealth, status, and image.  His view was that we had killed God (who had been alive).

The novel I am currently writing has a similar theme: society has turned its back on God.  So I bought a copy of Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann to compare my views with those of the great German philosopher.

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Friedrich Nietzsche

Walter Kaufmann (1921 – 1980) was professor of philosophy at Princeton University and a world-renowned scholar and translator of Nietzsche.  In fact, Nietzsche was first published in 1950, and has been through four editions, the latest appeared in 1974 in paperback.

It is clear from a mere perusal of the book that Kaufmann devoted much of his life to the study of Nietzsche, who was a difficult and somewhat opaque character, who fought with his mother and sister, and had a tendency to state his case in strong, sometimes extreme, language.  For these reasons, he was not well understood and attracted considerable criticism.  In fact, he became a hero of Nazi ideology, when some of what he said was either misunderstood or taken out of context.  Much of  this misunderstanding is owing to his sister who was an ardent Nazi, and who published re-written pieces of his work.  Nietzsche abhorred the German state and anti-Semitism.  His use of the term ‘blond beast’ was thought to praise Aryan purity, when, in fact, it had reference to the male lion.

The book begins with a history of  Nietzsche’s life: born 1844 and died in 1900, having slipped into insanity on about 1889.  He was made a full professor of classical philosophy at the age of 24; traveled extensively in Europe, and suffered from ill health.  He never married, but he proposed twice to Lou Salomé, a bright, strong-willed woman who was seventeen years his junior.

Nietzsche wrote fifteen books, there are also his lecture notes, his letters and his personal notes.  Rather than deal with each of his works one-at-a-time, Kaufmann addresses themes of Nietzsche’s work.  This is a better approach since Nietzsche made changes to his views from time to time.  Nietzsche was a doubter, a questioner, who took nothing at face value, yet he avoided the label ‘nihilist’ by attempting to establish pieces of a structure to replace what he had torn down.  He was anti-Christian because for him it placed too much value on faith and not enough on good works, and he called himself the Antichrist as a result of inconsistencies he perceived in Christ’s messages and actions, and because he refused to accept Christ’s divinity.  While he averred that ‘God is dead!’ because he thought people had turned their backs on God, it is not clear that Nietzsche was an outright atheist.  He seems to have had a belief in the possibility of God.

One of his better known ideas is that the basic human urge (more important than sex) is the Will to Power.  By this somewhat confusing term he meant striving to overcome the faults and weaknesses in ourselves to become as valuable human beings as we could be.  For Nietzsche there were three categories of humans which exhibited extraordinary value: artists, saints, and philosophers.  When one had overcome one’s faults and weaknesses, one became an ‘úbermensch’ – literally an ‘over man’, which has unfortunately been translated as ‘superman’, which wasn’t at all what Nietzsche had in mind: a sustained, an arduous, personal striving for self improvement which leads to happiness.  Coupled to Nietzsche’s concept of the úbermensch was the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’.  This latter was the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things; unfortunately, even if one assumes that time is infinite, this has been proven impossible.

Kaufmann is at his best shedding light on Nietzsche’s intentions, his values, and his thought processes.  As a result there is an enormous amount of detail in the book: footnotes and quotations from a wide variety of sources.  Occasionally, the logic of an argument becomes murky, but Kaufmann’s straightforward approach clarifies both the distinct character and the great contribution of this philosopher, and restores his stature in the face of unjust criticism, poor health, broken friendships and little happiness.

If one wants to understand Nietzsche as a whole philosopher, this book – rather that any two or three of his own books – is the one to read.

Use of a Plot Line

In the August issue of The Florida Writer, there is an article by Martha Alderson; “How to Use a Plot Planner”.

Martha Alderson is a historical novelist and the best-selling author of The Plot Whisperer.  She is founder of PlotWrMo and has worked with hundreds of writers in plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors.  She has authored six additional plot books.

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Martha Alderson

In the article, she says that a Plot Planner “helps you to visalise your story.  Use it to do the following

  • Place your ideas and sequence your scenes to greatest effect
  • Experiment with changes in the storyline to evoke stronger reaction and interest from the reader
  • Get a sense of how your story is paced
  • Generate ideas to better develop your story
  • Solidify your understanding of the story’s core elements
  • Ensure you understand the story you are presenting”

A Plot Plan is a line which rises from left to right.  The line recedes when a crisis or moment of tension is past, and the steepness is an indication of the rate of increase or decrease in the tension.  An example is shown below.

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 A Plot Planner

“At its core the Plot Planner is merely a line that separates scenes filled with conflict and excitement (which appear above the Plot Planner line) from those that are passive, filled with summary and backstory, or heavy with information (which appear below the Plot Planner line).

“In every great story, a protagonist pushes toward something (her goal) while forces both internal and external attempt to thwart her progress.  This struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist sends the energy of your story soaring.  The more powerful and formidable the antagonists, the greater the intensity, drama and excitement in the scene.

“Antagonists fall within one of six standard categories:

  1. Another character: family, friends, so-workers, enemies, lovers
  2. Nature: hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, natural law, physical disabilities
  3. Society: religious institutions, government, customs, gangs
  4. Machine: cars, robots, spaceships, motorcycles
  5. God: spiritual beliefs
  6. The protagonist: inner life, past mistakes, fears, flaws, doubts, moral choices, willpower

“Like the surface of the sea with its white caps, waves and swells, the external, griping territory of the dramatic action, when your protagonist is out of control, fearful, lost, confused, or under the power of an antagonist, belongs above the line.  All scenes that show complications, conflicts, tension, dilemmas and suspense where the protagonist is forced away from her goals belong below the line.

“Scenes that show action where the power is somewhere other than the protagonist should go above the line: conflict, catastrophe, betrayal, deception, vengeance, rebellion, persecution, rivalry, conspiracy, suspicion.  Scenes that show emotional development of the protagonist also belong above the line: failure to cope, revenge, self-sacrifice, loss of control, anger, poor decision-making, grief, fear, greed, unhappiness, personal flaw, loss of power.

“Below the line is where the mystery lies.  Scenes that belong below the line show the undertow: the internal, emotional territory of the protagonist.  Much of the character’s emotional development is placed below the line. Any scenes which slow the energy of the story or in which the power shifts back to the protagonist belong below the line.  Scenes where the protagonist it proactive rather than reactive, or is deciding on the best course of action and then taking it belong below the line.  These scenes include: a lull in the conflict, tension and suspense, a sharing of information with the reader by telling rather than showing.  Scenes in which the protagonist is doing one of the following also belong below the line: remaining calm, coping, solving problems, staying in control, planning, searching inward, and contemplating.”

My reaction is that there are some interesting concepts here, particularly in the differentiation between what goes above or below the line, and also the various notions about character development and the management of tension is a story.  While I think it is very useful to think explicitly about character development, the maintenance of tension, and the purpose of each scene, I don’t think that I would want to plot out each chapter or the whole story.  I think that in the future, when I’m writing a summary of what will happen in each chapter, I will also mention why it is happening.

Freedom of Speech

Most of us are in favor of freedom of speech; we regard it as one of the great benefits of living in the West.  I, as a writer, am bound to be a strong supporter of free speech.  But recently, there have been at least three categories of objection to freedom of speech:

  1. Government, and other public bodies, which do not want certain items of their information exposed
  2. Individuals (mostly celebrities) who do know want their actions to be publicized
  3. Religious groups who do not wish to see any criticism of their beliefs

As a writer, I am not involved in categories 1 & 2, but I can’t resist commenting on each of them.  Regarding Category 1, the usual objection by a governmental body to disclosure of information is: ‘The public don’t need to know’ or some similar excuse.  In my experience, the real reason is; ‘We’ll be embarrassed if that is disclosed’.  To which my response would be: “All the more reason to disclose it!”  I believe that the only legitimate reason not to disclose the requested information is ‘national security’.  Not infrequently, the body will protest that disclosure represents a financial burden.  If this is actually the case (reams of information, much photocopying, etc), I believe the requesting party should reimburse the costs (but only the costs – no discouragement fees).

Category 2 has been in the news lately with some individuals obtaining court orders prohibiting the media from publicizing acts (usually sexual) which they don’t want ‘people’ (read their wives) knowing, or about which they feel embarrassed.  I have no sympathy whatsoever for these individuals.  The appropriate remedy for these problems is not to prohibit their disclosure but to avoid creating them in the first place.

Category 3 is one where I’m involved.  In several of my books, my characters have criticized some aspects of religious culture or practices.  I have, for example, characters saying that Catholicism is nearly ‘polytheistic’, because Catholics are encouraged to pray to saints, rather than to God.  This being similar to Aztec or ancient Greek beliefs in multiple Gods.  My characters have also said that Islam, unlike Christianity, has no formal, overriding instruction to love your fellow men.  They have also said that Muslims can be too defensive of their religion, thereby conveying the impression that Islam requires protection.  Undoubtedly, some Christians and Muslims would object to these comments, but they are made ‘in good faith’ without any intention to insult or injure.  In my view, no religion is perfect; only God is perfect, but no religion should be mocked.  While I defend the right of the Charlie Hebdo journalists to publish demeaning caricatures of the Prophet, I consider it to be insulting, stupid, and in bad taste to do so.  I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  (Better late than never.)  In it, there is a character Mahound, who is a weak, indecisive prophet, who speaks with an angel Gibril, who doesn’t know what to say.  I haven’t read enough of the book to know what happens with these characters, but my reaction, so far, is that Rushdie is making fun of Islam, and, in particular, of the Satanic Verses in the Qur’an.  I’m not a Muslim, but I don’t think it’s funny, or amusing.  If Rushdie wants to say these kinds of things, he has a right to do so.  But, it’s intentionally insulting to Muslims to do so.  Back to my point about the defensiveness of Islam, I consider it a gross overreaction to sentence Rushdie to death.  If I were a Muslim who felt insulted by The Satanic Verses, I would tell the author how I felt, ask for an apology, and read nothing more that he wrote.  (But since I’m a Christian, I’ll continue reading.)

Review: The Meursault Investigation

This novel, written by Kamel Daoud, reveals the hidden side of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger.  In The Stranger, Camus has his principal character, Meursault, shoot and kill a nameless Arab for no apparent reason other than possible disorientation from sunstroke.  In The Meursault Investigation, Daoud names the murdered Arab as ‘Musa’ (Moses), and considers the implications of the murder from the viewpoint of Musa’s brother ‘Harun’ (Aaron).

Camus was a French-Algerian philosopher, an ‘absurdist’ who held that human life is absurd.  He was also regarded as an existentialist (he disagreed) and a pacifist.  He was born in 1913, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, and died in 1960.  In The Stranger, which was published in 1942, Camus used the murder of the nameless Arab for no reason as an example of the absurdity of human life.

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oman.  His background is similar to that of Camus: French-speaking, Algerian writer and philosopher. The Mersualt Investigation is Daoud’s first novel, published in 2015, and it has been recognised with several prizes in France.

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Kamel Daoud

In The Mersault Investigatiom, Harun is in a bar in Oman reflecting morosely on his brother, his mother and the book by the listener’s hero (Camus).  Included in his reflections are thoughts on Algeria, its people and its relationship to France.  The tone of the book is pessimistic and its conclusions are ambiguous (much like the tone and content of The Stranger).  One is left with the impression that there can be no God, and that life itself can have no meaning.

This is not an enjoyable book to read, because of its pessimistic philosophy, and because nothing conclusive arises from its reflective monologue.  No new ‘facts’ emerge about any of the characters, except that Musa was a real person who was loved by his mother and close the the heart of his younger brother.  Still, one has the impression that The Mersault Investigation is a classic in the absurdist philosophical tradition.  If you liked Camus’ writing, you will certainly appreciate Daoud’s.  He has created a well-written philosophical sequel to one of Camus’ great works.

Trends in Novel Genres

Chip MacGregor is a “book guy” by his own admission, and he runs the MacGregor Literary Agency.  He was asked recently: “Can you tell us the latest trends you’re seeing in fiction?”  Here is the (abbreviated) answer from his blog:

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Chip MacGregor

The continued growth of romance — particularly historical romance. Let’s face it, last year the publisher who saw the biggest growth was Harlequin, and they did it in a down year for most publishers. Readers in a bad economy like to escape by reading romance novels. You can roll your eyes if you want to, but it’s the truth.

Thrillers aren’t selling like they used to.  James Patterson and other bestselling novelists can still move large quantities, but once you move away from the bestselling authors, it’s much slower (and, frankly, much harder to place a new novelist). 

There is a renewed interest in Americana, particularly during sunnier days. We’re seeing interest in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, for example (assuming it’s fair to use British terms for American history). That seems to be a trend away from seeing so many wartime sagas — perhaps a reflection on our fatigue with the never-ending war in Iraq. 

We’ve seen a lot of growth with fiction that surrounds historical events. Not a retelling of the events, but of stories that touch on history. So, for example, we’re not seeing novels that re-tell the assassination of President Lincoln, but we ARE seeing novels that have to do with people who were in the vicinity, or who knew John Wilkes Booth, or who were at Ford’s Theater, or who were part of the chase to catch the conspirators, etc. Again, not so much focused on the event itself, but on characters who were influenced by the event. 

Literary fiction is definitely a growth category in American publishing. Take a look at any bestseller list, and you’ll see a lot of literary fiction. Not only that, but many of the books have a clear spiritual thread — something I don’t see many people recognizing or reporting on. 

One of the most-reported growth trends has been in paranormal fiction.

 I see mixed signals in the horror category. Some think it’s up; others think it has run its course. I don’t have a firm opinion one way or the other. 

Of course there has been huge growth in the Christian/inspirational category over the past 7 or 8 years. The incredible growth has slowed, making some think religious fiction is hurting, but that’s just not true. Christian fiction is still a HUGE category, and there is still growing interest from those houses who were late to jump on board during the heyday. So while, yes, we’re not seeing the big growth in titles that we did a couple years ago, compare the number of titles and the number of genres and sub-genres to what we saw just three years ago. 

One of the most visible areas of growth in the inspirational category has been Amish fiction (or “bonnet novels”). Some people have said that it’s going to fade out, but I don’t believe it. I think it has established itself as its own sub-genre. What Bev Lewis started and Cindy Woodsmall followed has turned into its own category of fiction. That sort of thing happens sometimes — consider Louis L’Amour creating the giant interest in westerns, or Edgar Allan Poe basically establishing horror fiction. People are still buying it, so it has clearly found its audience. 

He goes on the mention the growth of small presses (including those who specialise only in the production of e-books) and the growth of e-books themselves.  He continues: “I don’t think ink-and-paper books are going away any time soon — most every reader still loves printed books. But I’ve got three kids in their 20’s, and all of them are comfortable reading a book on a screen — even an iPhone screen. That tells me when their generation is in charge, the e-book will be a core business, not a side business. It will be a major part of every publishing decision, not simply a sub-rights discussion. 

I can comment on two genres mentioned above: thrillers, and spiritual literary fiction.  Five of the soon to be seven books I’ve published are in these two categories.  The three thrillers I’ve written are all pretty gripping, and realistic.  But, I’m beginning to feel ‘been there, done that.  Sable Shadow & The Presence is spiritual literary fiction, and it has won eight (minor) awards to date.  Writing it and the reaction I’ve had to it have motivated me to (nearly) complete my seventh novel, which has a definite spiritual dimension, and is set in the Middle East.  In spite of the fact a tremendous amount to research was required, I greatly enjoyed the experience.  I’ll tell you more about it as soon as the publishing contract is signed.

Imitation Is Much More Than Flattery

An article with this title appears in the December issue of The Florida Writer.  It is written by Barbara Baig who is  writer and veteran writing teacher.  The article begins: “The word imitation makes many aspiring writers nervous.  If they have spent any time in the academic world, then the word imitation will probably remind them of plagiarism, a crime punishable (when discovered) by lowered grades or even expulsion.  Everywhere in the writing world – especially in blogs – beginning writers are advised that their work, their story, their writing voice must be unique, entirely their own.  For some this message reverberates so loudly that they refuse even to read other writers, for fear of being denounced as “imitative”.

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Barbara Baig

At first, I thought this would be an article differentiating between imitation and plagiarism, but this was not the case.  Ms Baig suggests to aspiring writers that they should collect, analyze and practice small bits of writing that capture their admiration.  She says, “Imitation comes into its own when we use it, not to produce a finished piece of work, but to learn and develop skills.  The writers we love give us models of the kind of writing we’d like to be able to do.  Many aspiring writers read their favourites, sigh and say to themselves, I wish I could write like that!

“Say, for instance, that you love the kinds of words your favourite writer uses.  You can pull some of these words out into a notebook and examine them.  Are they concrete, sensory words? What sense or senses are they speaking to?  Do you like some combination of sounds in a word or group of words?  Take note of what you think is good about these words, then practice collecting some just like them.

“Now select some of these words and put them into sentences.  These sentences will be somewhat imitative of the originals, true, but it doesn’t matter because they are just practice sentences.   The practice is training your mind to choose certain kinds of words, to tune it to particular qualities or sounds that please you. . . . The sentences you write then will not be imitative, but they will be of higher quality than those you might have written previously, because practice has educated your writer’s mind and ear to new possibilities.

“The same thing is true for sentences.”  (And the article goes on from there.)

I think this is pretty good advice, though a little labourious, and if one focuses on one particular writer, the result may be more like imitation than a unique voice.

With rare exceptions, I try not to read two works by the same writer, preferring to sample the enormous world of talent that’s out there.  As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily read only popular works with good reviews.  Obscure works with good reviews can be quite interesting, and even if I conclude that the reviewer was overly generous, I will, hopefully, have identified some places where the writer fell down.

When I’m writing, I’ve learned to set an alarm bell to ring when I produce an ordinary, bland piece of text.  That piece has to be re-written so that it is both interesting and carries – in a unique way, if possible – the exact message I want the reader to understand.  You won’t be surprised to hear that I make frequent use of my thesaurus.  Sometimes a slightly unfamiliar word, in combination with others, in a particular context, conveys perfectly the sense that I want.

When I read, I try to keep my ‘writer’s antennae’ active: how real is that dialogue?  can I imagine, readily, the description of that place?  does the character seem unique?  is that piece of text really necessary?  how is this moving things forward?  And so on.

Booker Prize winner

This isn’t about who I think will win this year’s Booker Prize, but about a man who thinks he knows who will win and who won money last year on thirteen bets that The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan would win.

An article in The Daily Telegraph begins: “A mystery punter who correctly predicted the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize using a formula based on ‘Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning’ is at it again, this time staking his money on Sunjeev Sahota.  The man, who goes by the name of ‘Mr Smith’, has visited a string of betting shops in and around Darlington, Co Durham, and placed the maximum stake on the British author’s novel The Year of the Runaways.  Ladbrokes has reacted by cutting Sahota’s odds from 10/1 to 5/2, because ‘Mr Smith’ has form: his successful thirteen bets last year.

“The man, described as middle-aged, well-spoken and fair haired, later rang a local newspaper to disclose his methods – and the fact that he had not read any book on the shortlist.  After reading online reviews of the books he picked the winner by studying Wikipedia biographies of the judges and working out which novels they would favour.  ‘I never read any of the books because, quite frankly, fiction is not my thing,’ he told the Northern Echo last year.  ‘I had, therefore, to spend much more time reviewing the judges than the actual books themselves.  I did a case study of each judge, using Wikipedia and YouTube, and read as much as I could about the books they had written, their interests, their politics and religious beliefs and then, through a process of Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning, tried to intuit which books they would go for.’

“His worry that female judges would not like a war story – Flanagan’s novel was about a survivor of Burma’s ‘Death Railway’ – was assuaged by the fact it ‘had a love affair inserted into it that I guessed would keep the female judges from recoiling in horror at some of the gruesome aspects of the book.’  This year, he believes the six judges will settle on The Year of the Runaways, a tale  of Indian immigrants struggling to make a life for themselves in Sheffield.  The string of bets, made in shops in the Darlington area and backed up by online betting, puts Sahota’s book second only to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in the Ladbrokes odds.

If you fancy taking a punt, better make it today.  The winner will be announced tomorrow.

As we now know the winner is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.  Let’s hope ‘Mr Smith’ didn’t ‘bet the ranch’ on Year of the Runaways.  2015 wasn’t the year to bet on the Ladbrokes favorites.