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The Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840

20 Nov

or
Who Wrote the Gospels, and Why?

 

I was inspired to write this post by a brief exchange on Twitter. As a platform it can be very positive and funny, and it’s stuffed full of writers encouraging and commiserating with each other, but it’s not always like that. There are also people (or bots) who are angry, nasty or crazy. But enough about Donald Trump…

Apropos of the Greggs sausage roll controversy, there was a wee discussion of the historicity of Jesus, and someone commented that he isn’t mentioned in any Roman sources. That’s not true, of course, so, thinking I would simply be offering an interesting bit of factual knowledge, I pointed out a couple of Roman sources that do mention Jesus. The reply came back that these sources (one of them the major source for early imperial Rome) were obviously “fakes”.

There’s no point in trying to have a rational discussion about ancient history with someone who thinks ancient history is falsified, so I just let that one drop. But what surprises me is the number of non-conspiracy theorists who don’t believe that Jesus existed. We have four biographies (that’s the Gospels, to you) ostensibly written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness testimony, lots of mentions in letters by Christians from the mid-first century onwards, plus a smattering of mentions in Roman sources.

Of course, you could argue that these are all fakes, that they were either written much later and presented as contemporary sources, or that extra bits were slipped into Roman sources by naughty medieval scribes. I’m not going to get into the historiographical arguments about whether the sources are reliable or contemporary, or this post would end up being the length of a book, and plenty of good books have already been written on the subject. (You could try The Case for Christ, for example. The author has a bit of an obsession with what his interview subjects are wearing, but otherwise it’s pretty good.)

No, what I want to rant (sorry, write) about is the logical side of things. During my degree in Ancient History I also studied a lot of Philosophy, which means that I tend to find myself questioning whether arguments are sound, and the argument that the Gospels were forged centuries later strikes me as very circular.

The theory goes that Christians forged these “eyewitness” documents in (let’s say) the third century AD. (You can’t really push it any later than that without running into far too many references to Christianity, including the Roman Emperor becoming a Christian.) Gullible people believed them, and a religion was born, despite the fact that Jesus may never have lived. The question is, why would someone make up not only hugely detailed stories about a shadowy figure they knew nothing about, and be prepared to be punished for following their new religion, but also claim that there were thousands of other followers of this brand spanking new religion all around the Mediterranean, where their forgeries would be read? What possible motive could they have to do something so rash?

The answer is “because they were Christians, of course”. But that doesn’t help. If Christians are people who believe that Jesus Christ is God, and died to save mankind from their sins, then these forgers are, by definition, not Christians. They are the opposite – people who know for a fact that the claims of Christianity are not true, because they made them up.

So why would they do it? For the fame? Hardly; if the Gospels weren’t written by the people whose names were on them, then we still don’t know who wrote them. For the money? Nope – these documents were spread around like the common cold, not sold to the highest bidder. For larks? Well only if your larks include living a strict moral life and potentially being thrown to the lions (or at least duping other people into doing those things).

Let’s make up an analogous fictional situation. In philosophy this is called a thought experiment. It’s less exciting than a scientific experiment, but it’s also cheaper, and there’s a lower risk of explosion.

Let’s say that I set out today to fake eyewitness accounts of the Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840. I’ve decided to fabricate eyewitness accounts of the time that 5,000 talking hippoptami invaded Birmingham and denuded the city’s ponds of all their carp. The king was summoned from London and managed to save the city by promising an offering of carp every week to the hippo overlords.* I’m going to say that thousands of people now observe the weekly carp-sacrificing ceremony. I’d probably have to get a couple of friends on board too, to write other “eyewitness” accounts, unless I was extremely skilled at mimicking different writing styles.

But I’m not going to do that, am I? Because that would be daft. I have no reason to invent the Great Hippo Invasion, and, once the RSPCA and Birmingham City Council get involved, plenty of reason not to. I don’t think I could persuade any of my friends to join in either – maybe if it was a fun hoax and there would be a big reveal, but not in order to get generations of people to devote their lives to appeasing talking river horses by killing ornamental fish. And no one would believe it. I mean, do you believe it?**

According to the theory about the faked Gospels, my motive would be that I and my friends are hippoptamists, these deluded fools who go around sacrificing carp. But there aren’t any hippopotamists. Have you ever met one? No, because I just made them up. But that’s presented as a real motive for why Christians would want to invent accounts of Jesus’ life.

Now, if you still wanted to stick to the line that the Gospels were faked, you could argue that the (let’s say) third century authors who wrote them were Christians, and were trying to provide (fake) written evidence for things they’d only heard orally, but believed. That makes more sense, but then you’re accepting that there was a surviving oral tradition about the life of Jesus passed down in an existing Christian community – which still constitutes historical evidence for Jesus. And then you’re back to the same basic problem – how do fake (oral) accounts about Jesus arise without a Jesus for them to be based on? – just pushed back a bit closer to the time, so it would be even harder for false stories to be believed, even if anyone had a motive to make them up, which they didn’t.

I’m not presenting Anselm’s Proof here, and I’m not even going to go into the question of the miracles and Jesus’ divinity (again, that would turn into a book). I’m just trying to show that dismissing the existence of a well-attested historical figure on the basis of the argument:

Christians invented Christianity because they were Christians

is silly. So please don’t.

***

*Yes, it was a queen and not a king on the throne in 1840. But why bother about historical accuracy when you’re inventing 5,000 talking hippos?

** If I set up a Wikipedia page about it I suppose a few people might believe it. But then, some people believe that Finland is a Japanese conspiracy, apparently.

Olympia Fulvia Morata, the Genius You’ve Never Heard Of

2 Oct

Normally I’m not too insistent about telling people they must read my stuff. I mention it, of course, and if I think an individual will particularly enjoy something I’ll direct them towards it, but I don’t like to be pushy. (I still expect my mum to read every word of mine that’s ever published, but that’s her job.)

With my latest article for Premier Christianity magazine, it’s different. This time, I’m telling all and sundry that they should read it – including you. It’s not because I think it’s an earth-shattering piece of literature; it’s because the subject of it is so shamefully forgotten. The article is on the Women of the Reformation.

This Hallowe’en marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses, which catalysed the Protestant Reformation, and naturally Christianity magazine is focussing on that. As part of that they asked me to write an article either on Reformers you’ve never heard of, or women of the Reformation. I thought the former would be easier – after all, there weren’t any women involved in the Reformation, were there, apart from Martin Luther’s wife? But I did a little research and was stunned to learn that there were loads – writers and theologians, patrons and publishers, incredible women whom I had never heard of.

The one who really blew me away was Olympia Fulvia Morata. She was a child prodigy from Ferrara in Italy. By the age of twelve she was fluent in Greek and Latin. She composed treatises on Homer, lectured on Cicero, wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, all while still in her teens. Here’s one of her early poems, about her love of learning:

I, a woman, have dropped the symbols of my sex,
Yarn, shuttle, basket, thread.
I love but the flowered Parnassus with the choirs of joy.
Other women seek after what they choose.
These only are my pride and delight.

When she grew up, Olympia (or Olimpia, if you prefer – it doesn’t really matter) organised the translation of major Protestant works into Italian; corresponded with major reformers such as Calvin and Luther, and even with royalty; taught Classics; and in her spare time translated the Psalms into Greek hexameters. And she died at 29. Feeling inadequate yet?

Naturally I would warm to Olympia, with my own background in Classics, but why haven’t I heard of her until now? Why has no one else heard of her? And it’s not just Olympia, there were other influential women that I should have heard of too, but hadn’t. My article covers Olympia Fulvia Morata, Katharina von Bora (Luther’s wife) and Katharina Schutz Zell, because I was limited to three, but there are others too. Leaving out Argula von Grumbach, for example, was a difficult decision.

These women weren’t ignored in their day; they were mentioned in Luther’s writings, sometimes in glowing terms, and they were an integral part of Reformation culture in Europe. Olympia’s works were in print throughout the sixteenth century. But at some point they were quietly forgotten. Now you don’t even find these women in the index of most books on the Reformation; they don’t even make it into the footnotes!

I consider myself a feminist, a word that I feel I should quickly qualify since it means vastly different things to different people. Some readers are probably now picturing me as a man-hating SJW waving a placard about abortion rights, but my understanding of feminism is simply that women are people too; being a woman is not a failure to be a man. This is a fairly uncontroversial claim (and one that’s eminently compatible with Christian faith) although sadly it’s still not universal. (I’m not going to mention any major figures in public life, but you probably don’t have to think too hard.) And it’s this belief that left me so scandalised about the forgotten women of the Reformation, and so uncharacteristically forthright about telling people to read my latest article.

Everyone has heard of Erasmus (or at least the Erasmus student exchange programme, named after him), an intellectual who fruitfully combined classical scholarship with theology. I think everyone should have heard of Olympia Fulvia Morata too, who did the same thing, only younger. She has entered the small pantheon of my personal heroes, and I hope she finds a soft spot in the hearts of some of my readers, too.

My article, ‘Unsung Heroes, is behind a paywall online, but if you’re not a subscriber you can order a free trial copy of the magazine, or get it in Christian bookshops.

Olympia Fulvia Morata, my new hero.

Four things that are wrong with The Dark Tower film (and one thing that’s right)

9 Sep

This is one for the fans, as I’m afraid this post is going to be a bit of a moan about the new Dark Tower film. It’s not a bad film, as it happens, although it’s not good either, but the issue I take with it is that it is supposed to be “based on the Dark Tower series of novels by Stephen King”, and that is only very loosely true.

I am a big fan of that series, you see, and it is AMAZING. Epic in scope, exciting, moving, meaningful – one of those books/series that stays with you and becomes part of how you think about the world. I more or less had to see the film, since I’m such a fan of the books, even though I knew from the trailers that I wasn’t happy with the casting of two out of three of the main characters. And I was disappointed, as I expected to be. (But is it disappointment if you expected it? Hmm.) So after a bit of rumination, here are the things I objected to (and one thing I liked):

1. It’s not about Roland

The main character in the Dark Tower books is Roland Deschain, a gunslinger (a bit like a knight of the Round Table, but with guns). Other people come and go through the stories, including a young boy called Jake, but it is essentially a story about Roland’s personal quest for the Tower.

In the film, the main character is Jake. The story is about how Jake is unhappy at home, how Jake dreams of the gunslinger and his world, and how he meets and eventually saves Roland. Maybe this was a marketing ploy, since dystopian sci-fi/fantasy is so big amongst young adults at the moment, but given that the most book readers are in their 30s or older (the books were published between 1982 and 2004), that was probably a mistake. Plus, an unhappy tween is just not as interesting as an ages-old questing knight steeped in ancient lore and with some incredible skills to boot.

2. It’s not even about the Tower

Roland is defined by his single-minded pursuit of the Tower. It is his monomania, and he will let nothing and no one get in the way of that. That’s part of what makes Roland’s character interesting: he’s basically very decent, but that’s sometimes overridden by his obsession with reaching the Dark Tower.

In the film, Roland doesn’t give a stuff about the Tower. The idea of reaching it doesn’t seem to have entered his mind, and even when the thing appears to stand in imminent danger of being destroyed, he’s not that bothered. He only cares about killing the Man in Black. (They make a big deal of this in the film, about how Roland is deserting his duty towards the Tower in order to instead kill the Man in Black, apparently unaware that there is no conflict between those objectives, since the Man in Black is the one threatening the Tower. That somewhat undermines the narrative tension.)

Now I realise that this is a reboot (I won’t go into the reasons for that here, though it makes sense in the context of the books) but there is no iteration of reality in which Roland is not in pursuit of the Tower, otherwise the ‘reboot’ thing couldn’t make sense. (I know that this point is very obscure if you haven’t read the books, but I refuse to spoil the ending for you!) If they make a sequel to this film it shouldn’t be called ‘The Dark Tower’, but ‘Jake and his Pal Roland Wander Aimlessly around Midworld’.

3. There’s no emotional weight

The Dark Tower series is full of flawed, broken people in difficult circumstances, mostly (though not always) trying to do some version of the right thing. Roland’s relationships with his companions are hard-earned and deep. His relationship with Jake is particularly special, as he has no children of his own, which makes it all the more excruciating when his obsession with the Tower leads him to betray the boy. Nobody is safe in the books. You can lose fingers, toes, legs, or your life. Main characters die. One main character dies twice (in different worlds) within one book.

In the film, all the main characters are basically going to be okay. Other, hastily-drawn characters (especially parents) are in danger so that the heroes can suffer manfully, and obviously a few baddies and randoms have to die to prove it’s serious, but you know that for Jake and Roland, there will always be a handy portal or other deus ex machina when they need it. Roland receives injuries that are not only life-threatening but inescapably life-ending, but just gets up and dusts himself down. It’s cartoonish, it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t matter.

4. It’s actually a mash up of The Dark Tower, The Shining and Monsters Inc.

I very much like the Jake of the books, and I like the kid from The Shining too. However, if you combine the two and add on a couple of extra years so he’s a gawky tween, I do not like him much at all. If you’re coming to the film cold, you’ll assume Jake has psychic powers, since it’s a crucial part of the plot. I have no recollection of Jake having psychic powers. I’d have to re-read all the books to swear that he has none at all (and I’ve only re-read the first two so far) but it’s safe to say it’s not a major plot point.

In The Shining, it’s pretty much the whole plot, and the Dark Tower film makers must have liked this so much that they decided to incorporate it. Now it’s true that Stephen King’s literary worlds have lots of connections (and the Dark Tower stands at the centre, naturally, since it is supposed to be the lynchpin of reality) but a sneaky photo of the Overlook hotel doesn’t mean you can just switch characters around at random. Not without incurring my wrath, at any rate.

And then Monsters Inc. Oh dear. If any of you saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (and if you didn’t, don’t) you’ll know that the CGI battles are exceptionally silly, making serious scenes laughable. The Dark Tower is a bit that way, too, since the screams of children being converted into a CGI weapon to attack the Tower just made me think of Sully and co. from Monsters Inc collecting screams. And that’s not a good thing in a fantasy film that’s trying to take itself seriously. It’s also irritating, because efforts to destroy the Tower in the books are a good deal more subtle and insidious than shooting it with a big blue light.

5. But it’s a good advert for the books

Here’s where I am prepared to admit that there was something good about the film (other than the casting of Matthew McConaughey, which I thought was perfect): it makes viewers want to read the books.

I watched a number of reviews when I was formulating my thoughts for this post, partly to see what people thought if they hadn’t read the books, and many of those people commented that it had made them want to read the books. There are things mentioned in the film that are never followed up, things that hint at a much larger mythology. Who on earth are the gunslingers, and why is Roland the last? Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the Tower? And why does Roland hate him so much? The reviewers supposed that these things must have been explained in the books, and they are, apart from the things in the film that are wrong – but let’s not get into geeky nitpicking when we’ve almost reached the end 😉

So I can’t recommend the film, not even as an hors d’oeuvre for the books, since so much of it is so far out of bounds that it will just confuse you. But I can’t recommend the books highly enough. So do yourself a favour and spend your ticket money on the first book, The Gunslinger, instead. It’s your passport to other worlds than these.

I’m happy to admit the poster’s cool, though.

How Not to Read Books

12 May

A shipment of freshly-printed copies of The Talisman

This week, with some relief, I returned The Talisman to the library. It’s a fantasy novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, roughly the size of a breeze block – and I hadn’t finished it.

There was a time when I hardly ever left a book unfinished, no matter how little I was enjoying it (I’m looking at you, The Lord of the Rings) and when I did, I felt bad about it. I’m a quick reader, so it was usually a case of lack of desire rather than lack of time. These days, time is harder to come by so the quality of the book (or to be fairer, my enjoyment of it) have become more important.

I’ve recently got into the KonMari school of tidying and organising, and discovered the deeply soothing quality of an organised sock drawer. One of the ideas of KonMari is that you should throw out books, which sounds scandalous to a book lover, but when I read on, I could see Marie Kondo’s point. Why keep books you are never going to read (or re-read) and that just stare at you sadly from the bookshelves? If it’s because just seeing them makes you happy, great. But if it doesn’t, why are they taking up valuable bookshelf space?

My sock drawer is a small oasis of order

So quite a lot of my books recently went off to Music Magpie, and others are going to find their way to charity shops in the near future. Some of them I had started but never read. Some of them I hadn’t even started, and knew I probably never would. Getting rid of them is not failure; it is liberation.

In that spirit, here are some books I have left part-read, and the reasons why. Feel free to use the comments to give me your own list.

*

The Talisman, Stephen King & Peter Straub

It is just. Too. Long. That’s not a problem in itself, but when nothing much happens for several hundred pages, and what happens is fairly repetitive, it is a problem. This is especially true when any action present has an unsettlingly sadistic feeling to it. I’ve never failed to finish a Stephen King book before, but this just wasn’t worth the effort. The addition of a semi-human bit of – what? comic relief? – doesn’t improve a long book either, whether it’s a werewolf or an anthropomorphic countryside spirit. (Yes, I’m looking at you again, LOTR. Tom Bombadil should never have made the final edit.)

*

The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan

This is not a bad book. In fact it’s very informative, and quite well written. But the author’s insistence on not straying beyond the recorded evidence at all, even for emotions and motivations, eventually makes this non-fiction, novel-ish book unengaging. I know it’s trying to keep cool about an inflammatory subject (the Israel-Palestine conflict) but in the end it was just too cold to hold my attention. Non-fiction novels can be done better than this; just see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That leaves you chilled, not frigid.

*

The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

This was only vaguely interesting at the start, and became less so as it disappeared deeper up its own worldview. The protagonist experiences spiritual and psychological insights which don’t seem to amount to much in terms of a system of universal truth (spot my western post-Enlightenment bias there) but are so enthralling to him that he must talk about them, at length, while nothing much happens. Then men with guns turn up, he escapes, goes somewhere else and has another insight. Repeat ad nauseam. Real psychological and spiritual insights, I like (try looking up Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures on YouTube for that sort of thing) but this was not my cup of enlightened tea at all.

*

The Fall of Lucifer, Wendy Alec; The Shack, William Paul Young

I’m lumping these ones together because, while they’re dissimilar in some ways, they are both based on Christian (or thereabouts) theology, and they are both really bad. I mean truly, truly appalling. I couldn’t get further than the first chapter of either of them. The writing was so bad it was almost physically painful. I may be a bit hypersensitive when it comes to bad writing, but the very thought of reading these books makes me shudder.

Again, this can actually be done well. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti is about a hundred times better than The Fall of Lucifer – and that’s a modest estimate.

***

I don’t think these are the only books I’ve rejected. I have a strong memory of throwing a book across the room when it irritated me one time too many, not so long ago (I know, I know, violence against books should never be condoned), but I can’t remember which one it was. Maybe it will come back to me, and I will add it to my list. In the meantime, let me know which books you have rejected, and why, in the comments below.

The Great British Turn Off

31 Aug

I understand that the 2015 series of the ever-popular Great British Bake Off is now underway. Or will be shortly. Or was recently. I’m not exactly sure of the details because I have never been the least bit tempted to watch it. That’s not because I don’t like baking. In fact, I love baking and am well known amongst my circle of acquaintances for my excellent cakes and biscuits. I do so much baking that my little niece thinks “recipe” means “a book that tells you all the things what you need in a cake”. So why do I dislike the Bake Off?

Until recently, I explained that to myself and others by saying that it was the competitive element that put me off. Baking isn’t supposed to be a competitive sport, it’s an enjoyable pastime. When lots of people bring baked goods along to an event, the fun is in trying and enjoying all of them, not in declaring one the winner and rejecting the others. But that doesn’t really explain it. I mean, I don’t object to the kind of baking competitions where you make the goodies at home and then take them along to be judged. I’ve even entered competitions like that in the past before, and written a heart-warming, tear-jerking and fairly well-remunerated short story for a woman’s magazine on the subject.

I could say it’s the stupidity of baking in a tent. (You need a constant supply of water and electricity, and no wind blowing your icing sugar around so let’s hold it – in a tent! Ideal!) Or I could object to the hosts or judges. But actually my problem with it clicked when I read an article on introversion and it mentioned baking as an activity introverts can use to recharge. That’s it! Baking is a solitary, peaceful activity. If you make it into a big public thing, with everyone shouting and making noise and peering over your shoulder, it becomes a trial to endure, not a source of relaxation. My objection to The Great British Bake Off, it seems, is that I’m an introvert.

(As an aside, it’s also a slight quibble I have with the Macmillan World’s Biggest Coffee Morning. It’s an excellent cause, but I have to disagree with their statement that “cake tastes better together”. Cake most definitely tastes better alone.)

It’s normal for writers to be introverts – lots of deep thoughts, internal monologue and spending time alone with computers, paper, pens and books. (I love stationery – not sure if that’s connected.) But it’s not always easy to tell who’s an introvert and who isn’t, unless you know them well. I can be quite the social butterfly, in fact, meeting new people, remembering their names and making amusing small talk, but I couldn’t do it all day. In fact, if I spend all day with large groups of people, even people I like, I will be ready to burst into tears about nothing at all by the evening. I need time by myself to chill and recover, doing things like reading, watching TV, and baking.

The article that mentioned baking has a great explanation of introversion described in terms of mobile phone batteries. The basic gist is that it’s not that introverts can’t do outgoing, social things, it’s just that it drains the batteries, which then need to be recharged. It’s a good article and I would recommend it. I would also recommend that you try my baking if you ever get the chance, and read my writing (naturally). But don’t stand over my shoulder while I’m doing it, giving me marks out of ten. This is not the Great British Bake Off.

Introverts Unite

The Five Deadly Sins of Writers on Twitter

10 Feb

Before we get into this, I’d better be upfront: I joined Twitter because I am an author, and apparently it’s one of the absolutely essential things you have to do. Tweets drive traffic to your website and, so the theory goes, that increases sales of your books. I’ve yet to see the proof of this, but I stay on Twitter anyway because, annoying as it often is, it’s good for up-to-the-minute news, it’s sometimes funny, and you should see how much faster companies work to sort out your customer service queries when the details are on the web for everyone to see.

However, as a writer on Twitter I’ve become aware of the ways in which writers abuse this extremely abusable medium in a variety of irritating ways, so I thought I would have a little moan about it (which, naturally will increase sales of my books. Hmm.). Here are the five commandments for writers using Twitter.

bull horn

1) Don’t tweet about your book all the time.
I know that’s the reason you joined Twitter, but this isn’t a billboard or a TV screen for you to advertise on. It is, in a loose sense, a community. People follow you because they are interested in at least some of what you have to say. If the only thing you have to say is “Buy my product, buy my product!” they will very soon get tired and stop following you.

That’s not to say you can’t mention your wares at all, but keep a strict limit on it – one every ten tweets, say, or once every five if you absolutely must. In between times, find interesting things to say. If you can’t do that, the question is not “why are you on Twitter?” but “why are you a writer?”

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

2) Don’t only follow authors.

And don’t mainly follow authors, and especially don’t follow authors just because they’re authors. Yes, it might be nice to share the joys and sorrows of your profession with like-minded souls, but that’s not why you’re following them, is it? You’re following them because they’ll probably follow you back. And so they will, because they’ve read the same advice you have about building up your Twitter following to drive traffic etc. etc.

The problem with this logic is that they are not interested in your books! They are not going to buy them! They just want you to buy theirs. Do you plan on buying even one book from each author you follow on Twitter? No? Well use a bit of that writerly empathy to understand that the same applies in reverse, and stop trying to sell coal to coal miners.

BSZpsnx3) Don’t offer a follow for a follow or a like for a like.

For the same reason that you shouldn’t follow authors, hoping they’ll follow you back, please don’t say “follow me, I always follow back!” or “like my author page and I’ll like yours!” Anyone who follows you just to get followed, or likes your page just to get liked, is probably not really going to engage with your tweets or your webpage, and is almost certainly not going to buy your books.

It’s worse than that, though. To my mind, this kind of self-interested mutual back slapping is meaningless, pointless and vaguely incestuous. It’s also a little dishonest – a step down the road towards giving each other reciprocal positive reviews, regardless of what you thought of the book. Yes, you might get fewer page likes and follows if you refuse to play this game, but as we used to say on Team Starfish, “at least we kept our integrity.”

hard-sell-confused.com-0074) Don’t begin a relationship with a sales pitch.

If someone follows you on Twitter it’s nice to say “thanks for the follow” and it’s also nice to comment on some interest you may share. It’s not nice to say “Buy my book!”, “Visit my website!” or “Love me, love me, love me!”

Yes, I know that’s what you want in the long term, but take things at a steady pace and read the signals, ok? Think of it like meeting that special someone for the first time: it’s probably better to begin with “Nice to meet you” than to go straight in with “How many kids should we have?”

father ted5) Don’t give us the gory details.

This last one probably only applies to the writers of erotica, horror and especially gritty thrillers. You want to entice the inhabitants of Twitter to read your new masterpiece, so you give a short summary, and what better to include in those few characters than the most shocking and titillating bits?

Well, anything really. Twitter is public. Your followers may see it (although they may well not, but Twitter algorithms are a topic for another day) but so may anyone else in the whole Twittersphere. People with weak stomachs. People who’ve had traumatic experiences. People with strong moral views.

Although our culture sometimes seems saturated with violence and sex to the point where it’s no more shocking than a PG Tips advert, there are still plenty of people who don’t want to get wet. And don’t forget that, despite the popularity of things like Fifty Shades of Grey, there are still people who see erotica as being just as morally reprehensible as porn.

It’s entirely possible to provide a pretty good impression of what sort of book you’re plugging without giving it both barrels. Save that for your own website, where you’re likely to get a self-selecting bunch of people who actually like that kind of thing. In advertising your wares graphically on Twitter, you’re not gaining new readers so much as alienating potential followers.

And who knows, maybe followers are good for something other than buying our books? Maybe they have value in themselves as human beings. A radical thought, but one that, if embraced, might make us all more pleasant and charismatic members of the Twittersphere.

(By the way, if you do want to follow me on Twitter, for reasons other than sins #1 and #2, my handle is @kcmurdarasi.)

Why I am a writer, not an entrepreneur

5 Jan

This was going to be a post on Twitter, before I realised that I could never fit it into 140 characters. It was Twitter that kicked off this chain of slightly irritated thought, because it always seems to be full of advice for writers along the lines of “write for the market” and “think like an entrepreneur”. This, it seems, is the way to make it big as a writer. And maybe it is. I don’t know, and I probably never will know, because I can’t see myself ever following such advice.

“Many writers balk at this” said a recent article, telling authors that they should think like startup entrepreneurs trying to break into a crowded marketplace. Yup, definitely baulked – in fact, I felt my head draw away from the screen in a physical expression of how unpalatable I found that advice. You see, being an entrepreneur and breaking into a crowded marketplace doesn’t interest me at all. Here are a couple of other things that don’t interest me much: crime fiction and romantic fiction. Just not my cup of tea, generally speaking, but they dominate the bestsellers list. Therefore, as a good businesswoman, I should be writing them. Except clearly I shouldn’t because:

1) I wouldn’t enjoy writing them, and if you don’t enjoy what you do for a living, that’s a serious problem.

2) They wouldn’t be very good precisely because I’m not very interested in them and don’t enjoy writing them.

3) There are really enough of them out there already (in my opinion).

4) I have other things I want to write, that I actually care about, and that I would be prevented from writing if I just wrote the “marketable” stuff.

There’s a fifth reason that actually has nothing to do with my personal preferences, but springs from my experience as a writer:

5) You can’t actually tell what’s going to be successful and saleable.

I have sold stories that I didn’t think had much of a chance of finding a market, and I am still sitting on what seem to me much more saleable stories. Maybe this shows how bad an entrepreneur I am, without a decent understanding of my market, but I don’t think so. I think in the creative arts (yes, however humble, it’s an art) you just can’t tell what’s going to fly and what’s going to crash. I’m working on a novel at the moment about twins separated by civil war in ancient Rome. Maybe it will be amazingly successful and be translated into 50 languages, or maybe it will gather electronic dust inside my computer, but I have to write it because the characters are asking to have their story written, and no one else will write it if I don’t.

I don’t mean to insult writers who can produce dozens of popular, successful genre novels. If I enjoyed it, I would love to make a living out of producing a potboiler every year. I’m also not saying that writers (or other artists) should stick entirely to what they’re comfortable with. Some of my best work is produced when working to tight requirements or unusual limitations, for example when writing for competitions with a strict theme. It sharpens your creativity when you don’t have free rein in every area. But when you discover that you don’t like a certain genre or type of writing, and you’re not very good at it, I don’t think it’s good advice at all to continue writing that kind of stuff because it’s what the market demands.

If I wanted to make myself miserable for money, I would give up writing and get a proper job.

Whatever Happened To The Leisure Society?

29 Apr

I have to warn readers of a sensitive nature that there are one or two incidences of sweary-words in my friend’s article, but it’s well worth a read.

OK, I never lived through the ’70s so I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I’ve heard people tell tales of free university education (with grants! Grants!) and social equality, and it fairly makes your eyes mist with longing.

Whatever Happened To The Leisure Society?.

Cloudy, Chance of Rage

29 Jun

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Without wanting to give away too much about my age, I remember computers before Windows. If you don’t remember that, it’s hard to even imagine it. I know that there are all sorts of interfaces now, and many people are critical of Windows as an inferior system, but whenever people complain about I wish I could sit them down in front of a black screen with a green flashing > and say to them, “Go on, make it work. Oh, you don’t know the commands? TOUGH!”

Now, I’m not in the pay of Microsoft, and I don’t know a huge amount about computers. I just “mmm” vaguely when people talk about the superiority of Linux, because I really wouldn’t know (although I’m very much not a fan of Apple, albeit for reasons that generally don’t have much to do with their software). The point I’m trying to make, though, is how amazing the modern interface is. You click on the wordprocessing icon with your mouse, the word processor opens on your screen, you click somewhere in the text and start typing. Let’s break that down a little:

You use your mouse to move an arrow that isn’t really there (it’s just different pixels on the screen changing colour giving the impression of movement). You use it to click on an icon that is also just some differently coloured pixels on a screen. From this your computer is able to tell which program you are trying to open, even if you moved that icon halfway across the screen only seconds before. When you open the menu (which conveniently has little words like “open” instead of requiring you to input the computing commands you don’t know) and request a file it will trawl its digital depths to retrieve reams of data which it then presents on-screen in the form of a typed document. But it’s not a typed document, it’s lots of incomprehensible binary data just pretending to be a sheet of paper and some ink. Then, when you move your non-existent cursor over the imaginary document it is able to tell where amongst the words that are not really there you have selected, and when you type it updates its confusing string of data in such a way that more pictures of typed letters appear on the screen exactly where you want them. 

I do it every day – I’m doing it now – but when I stop to think about it, it’s still amazing.

However, all this not-really-there-ness has a downside. You can lose a paper document, of course. You can rip it, spill coffee on it, accidentally set fire to it. The ink may even fade over time until it’s impossible to read. But it won’t disappear in a puff of smoke. That’s exactly what can happen to digital files, though, and it happened to me today.

Now before anyone starts to wag a finger at me and talk about backing things up, I did, and that was what caused the problem. I backed up the completed manuscript of my children’s biography of St Augustine in a cloud-based storage facility. That takes not-really-there-ness to a whole new level. I can open files on my computer now, that not only aren’t really words on paper, but aren’t even complicated data on my computer pretending to be words, because they’re not on my computer at all, they’re only hovering there in an insubstantial, wraith-like way, while the actual data is on a server far, far away. Too far away to kick when it manages to eat the last hour of work you’ve produced.

All was not lost, however, as I eventually managed to restore a “conflicted” file that turned out to be the proper file, but there was much ranting and raging up to that point. It makes you feel so helpless. I searched for different versions of the file, I searched for words that I knew were only in the completed version, but the computer kept telling me it did not exist. It also makes you question your sanity. “But I saw it!” I kept saying to the computer. “It was there! I typed it! I did!” If it hadn’t been for the presence of a friend who saw the finished version, I might have started to doubt it myself. After all, there’s no evidence, no inky marks on your thumb, no impression of the words on a writing surface or another piece of paper. There’s just the computer telling you that the collection of data you spent hours tapping away at does not exist. And if it says so, it’s right, because these things only exist by the grace of the computer. I may have made this point before, but digital documents are not real. It takes you right back to that feeling of helplessness facing the flashing green > without the proper commands.

At some point in the next six months, that errant electronic manuscript will become a real, paper-and-ink book, and then it will be a lot harder to make it vanish. Until then, perhaps I should just try the form of paper-based storage known as printing.

A Plague of Dogs

21 May

no dogsWhen I rule the world, private dog ownership will be banned. This is not some kind of communist measure applying to all private property, it’s just dogs. (And cars, but that’s a different story.) Obviously, exceptions will be made for guide dogs, dogs for the deaf etc. People on farms can have dogs to do useful things. Keeping dogs as pets, however, will be right out.

In case I ever do rule the world, and bring in this regulation, let me explain the reasoning behind this prohibition.

1) Dogs defecate. All over the pavement in fact. This is something that is brought to my attention when I walk the obstacle course of dog dirt that is the route from Shawlands to Pollokshields, in Glasgow. The sheer quantity makes the mind boggle and the shoe sole quail. I once counted it. (Yes I know, that’s weird, but I was thinking that if I’m going to rant about it on the internet I should have some semi-statistical evidence.) I passed twenty-seven separate ‘incidences’ of dog poo.

It’s not just the disgusting smell (cleaning dog dirt off my shoes makes me heave because of the smell), it’s also the danger. Some dogs carry toxocara which, when it infects humans, can leave them partially blind. Lovely. Dozens of people, mainly children, come down with toxocariasis each year, because dogs have uncivilised toilet habits, and their owners have an antisocial attitude to clearing up after the dog.

And don’t get me started on people who think that if their dog defecates on grass the poo will magically disappear so they don’t have to deal with it. I don’t have a garden. We have communal “gardens” (read: car park) with a little strip of grass around the edge. In sunny weather I would like to succumb to the almost overwhelming Scottish impulse to throw myself down on the nearest piece of grass, but sadly it would mean settling myself upon a bed of dried dog-doo.

2) Dogs smell. Especially when wet, but even when they’re not. Houses that have dogs in them smell of dog. Cars that have dogs in them smell of dog. Buses with dogs on them… well, you get the idea. Perhaps there are people who relish the smell of dog. I am not one of them.

3) Dogs bite. Yes, they do. Not all of them, not even most of them, but plenty. There were six and a half thousand hospital admissions between April 2011 and 2012 caused by dog bites or other forms of attack. Attacks are also becoming more common. The RSPCA recommends that:

Children should not be left alone with dogs and warned not to approach them when the dog was eating, had a toy or possession, was sleeping, sick, injured, in pain, tired or had hearing or vision impairment. (RSPCA guidelines)

My solution is much simpler – no dogs.

4) I am scared of dogs. Related to 3, naturally. Some people call this a phobia, but I don’t think a fear of an animal that may maul you is irrational. My tiny niece has no fear of dogs, and I don’t want to instill one in her unless its necessary, but it does mean that every time we see a lovely wee doggy that she wants to stroke, my brain is whirring with thoughts like “Is this one a face biter?”, “Could I protect her from both of them at once?” and “Where is the nearest hospital?”

5) Dogs are an insult to wolves. I’m actually quite fond of wolves. (I probably wouldn’t be if people kept them in their tiny flats, let them poo all over the outdoor space, and left them free to attack people, but fortunately they don’t.) Some dogs show their relationship to wolves, and you can sort of see the point of them. Alsatians, Border Collies and other working dogs at least bear a passing resemblance. Chihuahuas don’t, and neither do Pugs or Shih Tzus or any other form of snub-nosed, silly-haired, shrunken bodied curs. I can only assume that when wolves see the ridiculous specimens their descendents have become, they turn bright red under their fur. Or try to eat them.

I appreciate that many people are fond of dogs, and will not share my views on keeping dogs as pets. Don’t worry, when in power I will be a magnanimous and reasonable leader, and I am in favour of the free movement of persons. When I rule the world, you will be allowed to emigrate to whatever planet you wish, and take your dogs with you.