Category Archives: Communication

How to write a novel

Out, Brief CandleOn the one hand, I’m feel like I’m the last person to give advice on how to write a good novel. On the basis of sales alone, this is certainly true. On the other hand, I have actually managed to produce one (Out, Brief Candle – currently free to download for Kindle to celebrate this post!), so maybe it’s worth a word or two on the experience.

My diary entry for 26th May, 1986 contains my  first-ever throwaway mention of the idea of attempting a novel. Little did I realise then quite how long it would take me (almost 20 years) and how much I would change in the course of writing it (a lot).

Here’s how it was for me.

In my case, I started with a theme. I was inspired by a quote from a book called The Shape of Chaos by David Helsa. It went something like this:

There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories.

As a language student at the time, I was fascinated by Helsa’s idea of the difficulty involved in genuine communication and I wanted to explore it further. I decided there and then to make this the crux of my story.

So far so good. I started to think this novel-writing stuff wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Then came genre and setting. I thought a lot about this, but my late-teenage lack of life experience meant I only felt qualified to write about an imaginary world where I couldn’t be too wrong about things – so I chose to set the novel in the near-future and ended up with science fiction.

Next, I started thinking about plot, characters and general planning. At this point, I reckon I lost about five to eight years during which I graduated, started work, moved house a few times, got married, ruminated about my imaginary world a lot, and wrote embarrassingly little.

Psion Series 3cThe breakthrough came in my late-twenties, when I got fed up with all the thinking, mulling and pondering, and realised I just needed to get the hell on and write something. This turned out to be a revelation. I wrote unhindered by preconceptions of where my story was going; instead, I did it just to find out what would happen next. It was like reading a story I’d never read before, watching it being told as it appeared on the screen in front of me line by line. I learned about characters as I created them. I explored settings as they came to me. It was both freeing and exciting. It was also productive. Despite the demands of family life and eventually three children, the bulk of Out, Brief Candle was written in the following few years on a series of small personal organisers, starting with a tiny Psion Series 3c (pictured) and ending with the big daddy of them all – the Psion Series 7.

Then came the train crash. I wrote thousands of words and had a great time producing them, but I also had a mess on my hands: plot strands that didn’t link, inconsistencies everywhere, character flaws and unexplained events by the bucketload. If I ever wanted to reach the end, I knew I had to start taking things seriously. I started re-imagining and re-describing my characters, now I knew who they were. I created a long overdue timeline of the principal events. I drew out my settings and created backstories where I realised I didn’t know them. And finally, I decided how my story would end, and I worked out what I needed to do to get from here to there. It was a different way of writing and it took a while, but it was worth it.

This gear-change was the best decision I ever made. Without it, I would never have extracted myself from the dog’s dinner I’d created.

I finally wrote my last few words in 2002. I made a pact with myself not to fiddle with the text any further – however strong the urge – printed out a clean copy, and optimistically sent it to myself via registered post as proof of copyright.

When I read Out, Brief Candle now, I can hear myself change over the years it took to write. It’s a story in two parts, and Part Two could easily have been written by some new guy drafted in to replace the author of Part One, who was presumably too exhausted to continue. Despite its many flaws, I’m very proud of it. If you’re out there wondering whether to write something of your own, I’d definitely give it a go. But remember that – like me – you might end up being in it for the long haul.

*I’m afraid I’ve lost the exact original quote, but it went very much like this: “Man longs for knowledge but he has only the words of his speech to use, and these are inadequate. There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories. Moreover, words are little-suited to knowledge since each word is surrounded by the undertones of its own history. Finally, words are inadequate for piercing the essence of reality, since they are merely the indicators of our own memories and these being merely contingent can no more get at the true reality than a spider that has put its nest in the corner of a palace can get at the total reality of the palace.”

Why ‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the new ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

This way for Wi-FiDiary date: 17th November, 1985

Back in the heady days of my diary, my friends and I have moved out of university accommodation and are living in a rented house a mile or two away from the campus. We chose it because it was cheap at £11 a month each and provided a roof and running water. The fact that at least some of this water ran steadily through the ceiling into my bedroom and that slugs crawled all over the living room furniture every night doesn’t seem to have entered our thinking.

Twenty-eight years on, my eldest daughter is looking at prospective universities and I’m quickly discovering that the list of student accommodation must-haves has lengthened considerably. An absolute given is something that was barely dreamt of when I was a student – Wi-Fi. Accessing books, films, games, the library, lecture notes and even friends and family used to require effort, planning, movement and often (horror of horrors!) physically relocating yourself miles away from your current position. Now, the same activities are available from your student room at the touch of a tablet, in a way that feels eerily like the world in E. M. Forster’s haunting short story, ‘The Machine Stops.’

Wi-Fi has quickly become one of those attributes that somehow makes a place seem more desirable. Its rise has been so meteoric that it’s fast approaching the status of utility rather than luxury  – an upstart must-have without the historic gravitas of water, heating and lighting, but part of a new breed of suddenly essential services, like its sibling mobile telephony. Wi-Fi lets you feel at home even when you’re on the move, to remain together even while you’re apart.

‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the connected generation’s ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ It’s a question asked of everything from shopping centres and trains to pubs and holiday destinations. High streets are awash with individual networks, with retailers banking on the fact that data-starved users on less reliable or more expensive mobile connections will crawl to the nearest hotspot like thirsty explorers to a desert oasis.

The idea that Wi-Fi adds a certain something to a location isn’t new. As long ago as 2004, realistic plans were being drawn up for whole towns and cities to offer free, municipal networks. Despite the fact that many of these early projects failed (through a combination of cost, practicality, technical hitches and competition from the big mobile networks), optimism over city-wide Wi-Fi persists – embodied in big projects like the UK government’s super-connected cities initiative.

Whichever university my daughter ends up in, I’m pretty sure that ‘how do you connect to the Wi-Fi’ will almost certainly be one of the first questions she puts her hand up to ask.

Friending, inboxing and googling: how verbing is changing the way we speak

Diary date: 3rd November, 1985Word cloud

It’s the Autumn of 1985 and I’m back at university again, this time for year 2 of my 4 year course. I leave my parents at home with a promise to call or send a letter soon, but with so many student distractions to get reacquainted with, it will be a while before I’m in touch.

If I didn’t pen many letters back then, I write even fewer now. All but the most formal have been replaced by text messages, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

In fact, we’re in such a rush to communicate these days that we’ve even reduced the words we use to describe these activities to the bare minimum. Sending a text message is simply texting, just as contacting someone on Facebook is now Facebooking or inboxing them. Tagging a tweet on Twitter involves hashtagging and sending an email is obviously emailing. Linking up with people is friending, and falling out with them again is described by the Oxford University Press word of the year of 2009: unfriending. And of course searching online is now amply covered by the ubiquitous idea of googling.

It all makes you wonder why sending a letter never quite managed to become lettering, and why watching TV isn’t just TVing or tellying (although in our own linguistically progressive household, it has recently been shortened to simply ‘watching’ – just as standing in front of a mirror preening yourself has become ‘vaining’).

What’s happening here is something that English has a proud tradition of doing with gay abandon, and that’s ‘verbing’ – converting nouns to verbs as the language evolves. It’s not only technology that makes use of this trend – nouns as diverse as butcher, parent, showcase and chair all spawned equivalent verbs years ago that today we take for granted. Linguist Steven Pinker has explained just how common this phenomenon is:

…easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns…

What’s wonderful is the degree to which people care about these changes and how quick they are to take a view on whether they represent positive or negative contributions to the popular vernacular.

My favourite case in point is the recent spat between Swedish lexicographers and global Internet giants Google. When it was proposed that the word ogooglebar (literally ‘ungoogle-able’) should be officially added to the Swedish language as a word roughly meaning ‘something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine,’ Google objected and pushed for the definition to include reference to their brand. Believing that language should be independent of such sordid commercial concerns, the Swedes refused and promptly dropped ogooglebar from their plans.

Swedish lexicographers (playing at home on the moral high ground): 1, Google (playing away from home and forgetting that a language belongs to its people): 0.

Telephone country codes: A shorthand history of the world

Calling SwedenDiary date: 31st July, 1985

A watershed moment 28 years ago this week: I’ve arrived in Sweden for a three-month stay working as a cleaner on the dockyards in Gothenburg. After a week, I managed to get enough Kronor in a public phone box to call my family and let them know I’d arrived safely. I spoke to them for about 20 seconds before my change ran out.

As a child of International Direct Dialling – the ability to make country-to-country phone calls without the help of a human operator – it was around this point that I started to make a mental note of the ‘country codes’ of places I’d visited. From Sweden, I knew I needed to dial 44 to get back to the UK. Doing the reverse – calling Sweden from the UK – I needed a 46 instead. At the time, I remember thinking that the allocation of these numbers was probably based on the alphabet. 44 was close to 46, and the ‘U’ of United Kingdom was close to the ‘S’ of Sweden. Who needed Wikipedia back then?

In fact, the development of the country code system is not nearly that simple, telling as it does by proxy the story of global geo-political change since the early 1960’s.

An initial list of largely European country codes was mooted in 1960 by the organisation which was to become the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) – the UN agency which helps coordinate global telecoms. The list was published as the Red Book and proposed around 50 two-digit codes (presumably used at the time by operators rather than subscribers), including the now-defunct Yugoslavia (63), Arabia (26) and Czechoslovakia (57).

The Red Book became Blue in 1964 and brought with it a proposal for a new system. The world was divided into nine zones, and countries were given one, two or three-digit country codes, with the initial digit representing their zone. World Zone 1 was North America, Zone 2 was Africa, Europe bagged both 3 and 4 because of the sheer number of larger countries, and so on.

In 1968 the Book was White and built on the new model, with a wide range of changes and additions, including East Germany (37), the Trucial States (971) and Zanzibar (252). Turkey, which in 1964 had the European code 36, moved to Zone 9 (Western Asia and the Middle East) and adopted its current code – 90.

1972 was Green and did a lot of tidying up.  Several Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras left the North American Zone 1, and became part of Zone 5 – South America. The Trucial States merged to become the United Arab Emirates and acquired code 971, and Rhodesia (263) became Zimbabwe. Ceylon (92) kept the same country code but became Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Morocco strangely found itself with with three codes all to itself (210, 211 and 212).

The books in the next few years started with Orange and Yellow, but their four-year cycles were eventually abandoned so that the ITU could keep pace with the demands of the new world of personal computing.

The changes since then read like a shorthand history of the world:

  • In 1984, the Republic of Upper Volta (226) became Burkina Faso, and the Falkland Islands, previously assigned to Guatemala, acquired their own code – 500.
  • The same year, a new code – 850 – was created for North Korea, with South Korea retaining code 82.
  • After German reunification in 1990, East Germany’s code 37 was deleted in favour of West Germany’s 49.
  • Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia (251) in 1993 and acquired a new code – 291.
  • Lithuania (370), Latvia (371), Estonia (372) and several other states split from Zone 7 (originally named ‘USSR’ in 1964) in 1993. The only former Soviet republic that retained its ‘7’ designation was (and remains) Kazakhstan.
  • Yugoslavia (38) was deleted in 1993 and became Serbia and Montenegro (381), Croatia (385), Slovenia (386), Bosnia (387) and Macedonia (389).
  • Vatican City gained its own code (379) in 1995 – instead of just being reachable through Italy.
  • In 1997, Czechoslovakia (57) became the Czech Republic (420) and Slovakia (421).
  • Following its independence from Indonesia, East Timor was assigned code 670 in 1999.
  • Palestine was given code 970 in 1999, replacing its previous access via Israel on code 972.

In fact, of the original 1960 Red Book list, only six countries* today retain the codes they were initially given.

Coincidentally – and rather fittingly for my followthehumming story – two of these are the ever-lovely Sweden (46) and my own United Kingdom (44).

*Just out of interest – since you’ve got this far – the other four are Greece, France, Italy and ‘Germany.’

Why waiting matters

Waiting for a traffic lightDiary date: 11th June, 1985

If you believe my diary, there seems to have been an awful lot of waiting around involved in living in 1985 – along with a fair amount of lingering, dallying and even the occasional bout of tarrying.

Mostly, I seem to have been waiting for friends who were late for something, but I also spent lots of time waiting for buses and trains, or for a particular book to become available at the library, or even for a letter to arrive. Waiting was often a pain in the backside, but it did have its occasional serendipitous upside – like the unexpected chance to chat to the cute girl from down the road who you never managed to accidentally bump into no matter how hard you tried.

Many of the things my 80s self used to wait for now sound distinctly old-fashioned. That boring half an hour spent on a street corner waiting for my friends to show up has disappeared altogether and been replaced by a preventative text, Facebook or WhatsApp message. News from my extended family now arrives instantly by email instead of days later by exhausted-looking letter. If my train is late, my phone buzzes to let me know before I’ve even left home. My holiday snaps are seen by friends and family while I’m still away – instead of weeks later after they’ve been printed out on special paper at the local chemist. And my parents used to have to wait till I came home from university before finding out much about what had happened during each term. These days, they’d probably be able to fashion a blow-by-blow account from blogs, texts and status updates – even if I decided not to let them be my friends on Facebook.

Given all this general speeding up, whizzing around and instant gratification, it’s nice to know that waiting for some things still takes just as long as it used to. It still seems to take around nine months between conceiving and having a baby, for example – which is almost certainly a good thing for all concerned. Mercifully, there are also still 12 months between Christmases and birthdays. And the average waiting time for a date with the cute girl from down the road isn’t necessarily any shorter these days just because you follow her on Twitter.

In reality, we’re still waiting for a lot of the important stuff in life just like we always have done. What’s really changed is how quickly and easily we can communicate about it with other people.

Given that anticipation is allegedly half the feast, the fact that waiting hasn’t gone completely out of fashion is no bad thing. These days, perhaps all we’re doing is sharing the feast just that little bit more.