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Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.

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I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

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In “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves points out that, while the two words are generally treated as synonymous, he personally makes a distinction. To him, the naked are honestly and unconsciously clothed, while the nude are sly exhibitionists. In the same way, I make a personal distinction between “author” and “writer,” two words that in theory have the same meaning.

The distinction is more than academic to me. For thirteen years, I have made a living mainly by selling my writing, and I have had both “author” and “writer” used to describe me. However, over the years, I have come to prefer “writer” and to use it to describe myself while shying away from “author” altogether.

Part of my preference is due to the fact that “author” carries more weight to my ear. To me, authors are people who write books, and, although I have one book to my credit – my reworked master’s thesis – that was twenty-five years ago, and the rest of my publications have been articles or at the most chapters in other people’s books. Nor am I the only one to define the words this way – wannabe writers, I notice, usually prefer to call themselves “authors,” given even a small justification.

However, for me, “author” sounds too grandiose. As the first syllable suggests, both “author” and “authority” have a common origin in the Latin word “auctor,” whose various forms can mean “promoter,” “originator” as well as “expert” or “holder of power.” In other words, an author is someone who originates thought, or is the source of others. Echoes of this meaning can be read in Mathew 7:29 of the King James Bible, where Jesus is described as having “taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes” – that is, as someone with original ideas, and not someone simply repeating what others have said or someone making a scholarly article full of citations.

To claim to be an author, then, would seem to be a declaration that nobody has had thoughts similar to mine or expressed as well as mine, and that people should therefore listen to me. Yet while that should be the level of excellence to which I or any other writer should aspire, I feel uncomfortable making that claim for myself. If made at all, such claims are the rights of readers. Undoubtedly, too, the pressure of deadlines and the effort to make a living has encouraged at times to write at least than my best. In fact, I am sure that the distinction between original writers and the rest of us is not nearly as clear as the word “author” possibly implies.

By contrast, “writer” is a humbler term. It simply means someone writes, with no reference to quality or originality – and that I unarguably do. For that reason, I prefer to express no pretensions, and simply call myself a writer instead of an author.

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Shortly after 4:35PM on Saturday, March 28, I finished my manuscript for “Designing with LibreOffice.” It was the end of two years of work, stolen from my efforts to make a living and from my leisure time, as well as the start of the next stage in bringing the book to market.

At eighty-thousand words, the manuscript is the largest I’ve prepared since my master’s thesis twenty-five years ago. This time, no lightning strike directly overhead took out my hard drive a few weeks before a critical deadline, but other obstacles impeded me instead. Unlike with my thesis, I couldn’t take the time to do nothing else until it was done. Grief, repetitive stress injuries, and bad knees took their toll, dragging out the writing far beyond what I had expected.

Then, too, I confess there was mission creep. I was aware of the problem, having tried to write a book on OpenOffice.org over a decade ago, only to lose the control of the scope, but it happened again anyway. This time, while I wanted to avoid too much detail, I soon understood that,while I started only with the intention to explain styles and templates in LibreOffice ,the exercise would never serve readers unless it also explained typographic conventions and standards.

Fortunately, having worked as both a technical writer and a graphic artist, as well as a free software writer, I was well-positioned to write such a book.

However, the form it needed took a while for me to understand. What I wanted to write was only partly a technical manual. It was also an explanation of typography, mixed with advice about how to – and how not-to – use LibreOffice. Finding the voice and structure for all these aims was much harder than the physical act of writing, which is why some of the chapters only took their right form in my third draft.

I finished, tired and satisfied, and smirking just a little at having overcome everything when I finished sending the last of the files to my editor. Had I been living with someone, undoubtedly we would have gone out to dinner and so to bed, but instead, I floated vaguely around the townhouse, imagining vast panoramas of spare time opening around me in the days to come.

That won’t happen, of course. Next comes the corrections requested by my editor, the selection of the cover, and the building of the concordance for the index. At some point, too, I have to divide into small sections to sell separately from the hard copies of the entire book (the downloads are free). Already in the past two days, this new stage is starting, so I feel like I am at the tip of the crest, feeling the roller coaster starting to tip inevitably downwards.

Time now to disengage from the book, to re-frame it in my mind as no longer mine, but an object to prepare for others. Time to lose the ego’s perspective, in which criticism feels like an attack, and to become detached and business-like.

Still, even as that next stage begins, a sense of accomplishment lingers. Not the meaninglessness of self-esteem, but the sense of accomplishment of having finished not only a long project but one which very few other people have the background to do.

I suspect it won’t be another twenty-five years before I write another book length manuscript. Possibly, I may begin a new project by the end of summer. Meanwhile, I’m going to surf the crest of the wave of accomplishment, believing for a while that I’m not so useless as I sometimes believe.

Will the return to reality will feel like toppling headlong into the waves and losing all sense of direction? Probably. But for a moment I’m standing tall, doing handstands on my board, waving to those stuck on the beach.

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In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the title character learns that Julius Caesar, far from giving speeches about glory and sacrifice to his troops before battle, joked with them instead – and, at least once, gestured suggestively with a turnip. Wisely, Claudius ignores his written speech about honour for an impromptu one.

This episode made me realize a basic fact about war literature: If a piece talks about heroism and fallen comrades, it was probably written by a non-combatant, or by a veteran long after the fact. From this fact alone, you can usually judge how authentic a piece of war literature really is. Graves himself, as a veteran of World War I and a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, was in a position to know this fact, and I believe he was the first to record the observation.

This observation explains, for example, why Rudyard Kipling is so often admired by those who have soldiered. Possibly, Kipling doesn’t get the tone of his poems and stories quite right, partly because he was a civilian, and partly because, in describing soldiers’ lives to the audience at home, he often lectured. However, he is close enough that soldiers from any war recognize the type of life he describes, with its inside references, jokes about officers, and low level griping.

I was reminded of this touchstone when I woke a few days ago with a song I had heard over a decade ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival. It was a song about the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and its defense of Jarama, set to the tune of “The Red River Valley.”

The first two verses of the original are:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That’s a place that we all know so well,
for ’tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we’re leaving
But don’t hasten to bid us adieu
For e’en though we make our departure
We’ll be back in an hour or two.

By contrast, this is the version of the song heard a few years later at a reunion of British survivors:

There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
It is there that we gave of our manhood,
And so many of our brave comrades fell.

We are proud of the British Battalion
And the stand for Madrid that they made,
For they fought like true sons of the soil.
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.

Only a few years separate the two versions, but the falseness has already crept in – no doubt because those who sang the second version are not only survivors, but survivors of a cause that was utterly defeated. The original’s reference to manhood has changed from a complaint to a reference to self-sacrifice, and all sense of humor thoroughly scrubbed from the song. Now, the soldiers are not simply learning one of the truisms of war – that it includes long stretches of boredom and futility – but have become “true sons of the soil” (whatever that might mean when applied to foreigners fighting in Spain).

Similarly, the original ends with, “So remember the Jarama Valley / And the old men who wait patiently,” while the later version ends with, “So before we continue this reunion / Let us stand to our glorious dead.” The difference in the description of the soldiers or the tone can hardly be greater.

Apparently, this is a fundamental difference that is almost impossible to overcome. Woodie Guthrie, who sang his own version of the song, does better than the reunion version, writing that “we saw a peaceful valley turn to hell,” but even a songwriter of his talent cannot resist promising to return in victory, when the valley’s inhabitants will “breathe in our new freedom’s air.”

I understand the reasons why nostalgia might transform the experience. If nothing else, the songwriters and singers are eager to find some compensation in their defeat, and all of them were idealistic men.

Yet, even so, I far prefer the genuine sentiments of the original. Maybe I am deceiving myself, but the cynical humor of the original seems to tell me far more about war is actually like for those who live through it.

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The German general Helmuth von Moltke noted that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The writer’s equivalent of that adage would be, “no outline survives contact with the keyboard.” Still, that doesn’t mean that outlining is useless – just that it is very different task than most people get taught in high school. I taught composition for eleven years as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University and community colleges. Since then, I have written close to 1700 articles, as well as numerous blogs, stories, and essays. From this experience, I feel confident in saying that almost everything the average novice thinks they know about outlining is wrong. For instance:

  • There is no point in insisting on using a formal outline, the way that most high school teachers and many text books insist. The fact that, when asked for one, most students construct a formal outline after the fact is enough to prove that, for most people, formal outlines don’t work.
  • No single type of outlining works for everyone. Instead, you should try mindmapping, mental planning, or any other form of outlining you can think of until you fgreatind the ones that work best for you. All that counts is what works – an idea so radical that after I expressed it, I sometimes heard students draw deep breaths as though I had said something shocking. Apparently in their experience, writing techniques were not about benefiting them, but satisfying a teacher’s insistent demands
  • .

  • The purposes of outlining are to prepare you to write, and to get you away from trying to outline, write, and edit at the same time. If you have ever plunged unprepared into writing, getting a few lines, then crossing them out, writing a little more, and crossing out a little more, over and over until your main emotion is frustration, you can appreciate what I mean that trying to do all these mental tasks at the same time mean that you are probably doing them all poorly. By dividing them out, you can probably be more efficient at all of them, and take less time to complete what you are writing.
  • No firm rules exist, but, based on my experience and that of other writers, the physical act of writing should occupy less than a quarter of your time. About half your time should go into researching and outlining, and the remaining quarter into editing. These are only approximations, of course, and will vary widely between people, but many novices spend as much as three-quarters of their time trying to write (but really combining all three functions)
  • Spending too much time outlining is often counter-productive. Although some people thrive on formal outlines, others go into so much detail that, by the time they go to write, they have lost all interest in the topic. Instead of preparing them to write, outlining saps the energy that should go into writing
  • .

  • Outlining is over (at least until the next draft) when you have a clear idea of how the piece you were writing was organized. This definition has at least three advantages: it keeps you fresh, gives you confidence, and helps you to think more clearly about your subject.
  • Outlining is a starting point, not necessarily a final structure. Something about writing — especially with a pen, but also with a keyboard – stimulates the human mind. Perhaps this stimulation is a matter of focus, but I have never heard it adequately explained. Personally, it is the nearest I have come to a supernatural experience, and all I really know is that it works. But for whatever reason writing stimulates other ideas, and what seemed like a thorough outline shortly after completion is likely to seem incomplete or even misleading as you write. Instead of clinging to the outline, accept this stimulation – after all, it’s a sign that writing is going well. You may choose to scribble down the ideas that come when you are writing and deal with them later, or try to incorporate them as you work, but the one thing you should never do is ignore the ideas that coming to writing. If you do, you are probably throwing away your best ideas.
  • After each draft, spend some time outlining, evaluating your original structure as well as the ideas that came to you as you writing. Look especially at the order and importance of your ideas. What seemed to work while you were originally outlining may not have worked as well as you expected when you came to write.
  • Outlining after a draft is as much about throwing out ideas as adding them. Just because you spent time expressing an idea does not mean that you should keep it. In fact, many writers believe that an idea or its expression pleases you too much, it should be deleted automatically. I wouldn’t make that an inevitable practice, but it’s worth considering, if only to improve your thoughts by challenging them.

Your methods of outlining may change as you gain more understanding of yours work habits, and as you increase your experience of writing. For instance, years ago, I needed to outline in some detail to write three thousand words. Now, I do most of my planning in my head, and only need to jot down a few key words unless I am writing at much longer length. However, I am not trying to suggest that novices imitate me. That is one thing that many people who give advice about writing fail to notice – often, what they are saying is how they do things, not anything with any claim to applying to everyone. The point is, you can make outlining work for you, if only you disregard many of the certainties you were taught and discover what works for you.

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Mathew 7:29 states that Jesus of Nazareth “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The description has stayed with me despite my agnosticism, and I take it to mean that he had original thoughts and was not just copying what others had said. Over the years, I’ve taken to using the description for gifted poets, so, after reading Cathoel Jorss’ comb the sky with satellites it’s still a wilderness, I want to say at the outset that she has authority and does not sound the least like a scribe.

The title of her book is a typical example of what I mean. If you stop and think, the statement in the title is not particularly profound – something like “despite everything, the wild still exists.” However, what would be an ordinary thought sounds fresh when expressed in her words, making you notice what you might otherwise ignore.. The same is true of an almost throwaway statement like “silence is snorkelling in God’s own pond,” which also has a flippancy that calls renewed attention to it, as does Jorss’ description of what is evidently a trip to England as “Nasty, British, and short.”

A major part of Jorss’ expression is an aptness for metaphor. In one poem, she describes the sea simply as “the largest wilderness.” Another poem that compares men and women includes the comment that men “improvise, like actors / making up their lines.” Still another describes removing cobwebs from her face as “you may kiss the bride / over and over again,” and talks about “my favorite mole, a blarney stone for silence.” Some of these metaphors may be obscure at first glance, but their originality encourages you to slow down and consider them – and, with one or two exceptions, in context they are not hard to figure out.

Jorss’ tone has a formality about it most of the time, so much so that at times you might wish for a change of pace. However, when Jorss provides one, it can be arresting. Sometimes, it is just the use of “fuck” or “pee” that brings you up short, a sudden reference to Star Trek or a brief descent into the simplest of word choices. At other times, it is unexpected humor or flippancy, or a Sylvia Plath-like bluntness, or all three at once, as when she comments, “I was born old and it’s only gotten worse.” In some of her most arresting poems, she veers back and forth between these extremes so rapidly that the shifts can dizzy you:

so if I choose to believe in love
as a verb (in which a noun can dwell)
I am the last remaining member
of an ancient guild eroded
as polar shelves peel back to reveal the shanks of bone

for I have looked into the darkness so long
it seems to be streaming with light
I whistle while I work and never examine the other side
of the glass, for love is extinct, they say
it is being rebred in captivity

Jorss is not afraid to take chances with language, and if you start by half-expecting her to fall flat on her face, she never takes a serious stumble, and succeeds so frequently that much of the pleasure of her collection is seeing her carry off her audacity.

All these comments are not to say that comb the skies…. is flawless. In a few places, Jorss focuses on language so intensely that her narrative structure is weakened. Personally, too, I would like to see how her generally formal tone fares in structured traditional verse. But free verse relies on diction, tone, and metaphor, and these are all elements of writing in which Jorss shows originality and skill,

I have only read this collection twice, so at this point, all I can say is that Jorss’ work lingers with me. However, I have the strong suspicion that in time it will also pass the ultimate test of standing up to many more readings over the year.

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