Saturday, August 15, 2015

Humming: now we know the cause and there is no cure. Sob.



The hum of the earth has not gone away. It's still driving people crazy and inspiring scientists to search for a scientific explanation.

The latest research blames monster waves, deep deep down under the ocean. A lot goes on down below the surface, including waves we can barely see, waves that travel up and over undersea mountain ranges, waves that collide with each other. Microseismic signals result, not felt by most humans.
"I think our result is an important step in the transformation of a mysterious noise into an understood signal," said Fabrice Ardhuin of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Brest, France.
Alas, this news comes too late for Ivan, the tragical-comical hero of my novel Humming. He is bursting with theories about the source of the Hum, from whale-song stuck in the sand to the voice of God, speaking very very slowly. I suspect he prefers ignorance so that he can generate ever more crazy hypotheses, don't you?
Anyway, knowing the reason is not enough. Scientific certainty is no relief to those whose bodies throb with the earth's relentless hum. No amount of artistic athleticism and silver foil can stop the penetration of the hum.
When you're in love with your own magical hypotheses, it's inclined to end badly. Still, Ivan finds his own kind of prickly peace which almost satisfies this cheerful melancholic.
But hey! what am I doing?

How to make millions as a novelist like Danielle Steele

Is that your dream? To sell 650 million books, have 2000+ 5–star reviews on Amazon, earn £64 million in British sales alone, write 90 bestsellers ...? 

I can tell you how, but there's a hitch: first you have to be Danielle Steel. Let me share a few clues from her website. Notice the talent, persistence, hard work, enterprise and altruism?

  • bi-lingual, French/English, also speaks Spanish and Italian
  • has worked as teacher,  translator and advertising copywriter 
  • has eight children
  • worked on the streets with the homeless for 11 years after her son died
  • at one time held down three jobs and wrote at night
  • wrote a successful novel at 19, then wrote five books that were never published
  • established two foundations, one to help the mentally ill, and the other to help the homeless 
  • curates a contemporary art show once a year for a gallery in San Francisco.

Naturally, you will need everything that every popular novel needs in abundance: a riveting plot, strong characters, straightforward dialogue, ruthless structure, and an easy-to-read style.

Easy? I tested the first paragraph of her latest novel, The Prodigal Son, for readability. On the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test, the score was 82.3, which means that 82.3% of English-speaking adults can probably read and understand it easily. This is exceptionally easy to read, I assure you.

Finally, when reading The Prodigal Son I noticed one quirk that is not what I'm used to. Steel reiterated certain points of character over and over and over again. In particular, I guess she told me 15 times how everyone in town thought the good twin, Michael the beloved small town doctor, was a saint. OK, I get it. I got it the first time. But let's not dismiss this as bad writing: I dare say this technique helps to make her novels so spectacularly popular. Popular means everybody gets her meaning.


A history of publishing through one author and 36 books

January 11, 2015


It's 2015, in case you didn't notice. That means I've been a so-called published author for 40 years: I'm a walking, talking, piece of history. My publishing record is a black-and-white snapshot of the industry over the last 40 years. You could draw a graph of international publishing patterns and it would look like a portrait of me. The history of publishing, c'est moi.
Let's stick to my poetry, fiction and non-fiction books.
Poetry books: From 1975–1988 six poetry books were published first by small-press poetry specialists, then by a mainstream publisher. However, in 1980 I self-published House Poems for the sheer pleasure. Peter Ridder, a book designer, educated me in the process from editing to marketing. I loved having control of all decisions — page and cover design, binding, paper. I even drew the illustrations, and it's still one of my favourite books. House Poems became my benchmark for self-publishing: I could do it, I loved it, It was quick, and I made money from it.
A turning point came in 1993, with Tourist in Kyoto. A mainstream publisher messed me around and I thought, "Why should I wait another 6 months? Why suffer this process all over again?" So I self-published that book and was thoroughly satisfied.
Fiction: My novels were published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986, 1987, 1990, and by a smaller mainstream publisher in 2005. Then in 2010 I self-published a book of short stories, Scarlet Heels. The process was easy and fun and the book looked good. And although my publicity machine was pathetic, the book still made money. 
Ten non-fiction books were published by mainstream publishers between 1980 and 1999. Since then I've published (and reprinted) four through CC Press.
To summarise: from 1975 to 2005 I had most of my books published on paper by conventional print publishers, and I also self-published two little books for fun. And since 2005, all my books are self-published. So of my 36 books (many of which I hasten to say are very small), 9 are self-published. I see the same pattern the world over: don't you?
Now you may be thinking, "Obviously the quality of Rachel's writing deteriorated at the turn of the century and she became unpublishable." Indeed, that's what publishers imply sometimes. More often (after waiting for months) you may be told, "Sorry, your book doesn't fit with our marketing plan." Subtext: "We can only publish a handful of books each year and we can't afford to take a gamble. The marketing department runs this publishing house."
My attitude? Never say never, but I'm happy to self publish forever more. It's fun, it's empowering and it's profitable. I do enjoy making physical books, but for fiction, nothing beats ebooks. So now I'm picking the best of my backlist, just a handful of titles, and I'll publish them as ebooks. That's an amazing feeling, to rescue your favourites and say "Hey, world! Check this one out!"

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Where is the borderline between attachment and love?


Buddhists believe that we should aim for a state of non-attachment, and that anyway, everything we attach ourselves to is temporary, so it's kind of pointless to get attached. Well, that's a gross over-simplication of a profound philosophy, but it'll do as a definition for now. 

I do recognise that it may often be a Bad Thing to become over-attached to people or things or ideas.

Attaching ourselves to objects

If we are over-attached to objects, that may imply that we have invested too much pride in material possessions. We are greedy pigs.

Or maybe we have endowed a certain object with the power to represent a certain memory, or belief, or perhaps our self-image. We may be in love with an object for its beauty or nostalgia or usefulness or symbolism or rarity.

I imagine that attachment to objects is the crudest form of attachment.

But is it a Bad Thing to be intensely aware of the merits of an object, for example, an apple or the planet Earth? Isn't that better than taking them for granted?

Attaching ourselves to ideas

If we are over-attached to an idea, that may mean we are closed to other ideas. We cling to our own perception or theory. We become boring, banging on about the same-old same-old year after year. We don't listen to other ideas. We cannot collaborate. We become snarky, prickly conversation-stoppers, defending our idea against all comers. We may join a cult of fellow-worshippers. Other people won't let us join their book group.

And yet how thrilling it can be to fall in love with an idea! Then we want to explore it to the limit, to test it to destruction, to talk about it all the time. One day we may find pot-holes in our beloved theory — and that's fine. We can still can keep the idea as a valuable tool or even an inspiration, loving it for itself, on its merits.

Attaching ourselves to people

And if we are over-attached to people? OK, the Buddhist warnings may simply imply that romantic love is fleeting, or that co-dependence is a sickness.

But setting aside hormone-driven romance and pathological states of infatuation or neediness, I am unwilling to let go my attachment to my personal band of family and friends.

I do my best to hold their hands lightly so that they can slip away at any time. Eventually, on my deathbed or theirs, I will let my dear ones go. But please, Mr Buddha, allow us to love one other consciously and carefully until that moment.

Let go, let go! No no no no!

I consider myself pretty good at letting things go. Books flow in and out of my house like a river. Every time I buy something, I try to give something equivalent away. Messiness is fine but clutter offends me and gets dealt with pretty smartly.

But I had better let go of my self-image as a clutter-clearer. Because last week I thought I had lost my little blue change purse, and this was unexpectedly disturbing. When I lost it, I almost lost it. I was ready to slap LOST notices on every lamp-post and send out a press release and undertake grief counselling.

Luckily the purse turned up a few days later: it was just hiding.

Seems I am irrationally attached to that change purse. Hm, why, I wonder?

  1. Usefulness. It is perfectly designed for its purpose. Though tiny, it has three compartments: one for notes, one for cards and one for change. It fits into my smallest pocket.
  2. Beauty. It is beautiful object of the softest bluest leather.
  3. Nostalgia. It is a memento of a happy family event in Morocco.
  4. Rarity. It is impossible to replace without going back to Morocco.
  5. Symbolism. It is simple and cheap and unappreciated by other people. I honour the designer and the maker. 
  6. Oops. I just noticed a more significant symbolism: the purse holds my money. How humiliating. How deeply unspiritual.
These are all reasons for enjoying the purse, but surely not for attachment.

OK, not perfect. But we knew that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Listen to yourself and notice patterns of thought and mood and attitudes to aging

It looks chilly and eely and hurty. If it's not, that's scary. It should be.
I'm trying to do just that: listen to the words I say, and especially to my tone of voice. These give broad hints about a person's attitude and mood and in a broad sense, health.

Most human encounters include a mutual enquiry about health and happiness and life in general. The exchange may be rapid and automatic and formulaic, but at the same time it's usually sincere. We do care! And as we get older, the enquiries take on a certain intensity. Our contemporaries are ailing and failing and dying.

"How are you?"
"How's life?"
"How's your day?"
"How are you doing?"
"Is everything OK?"

How do you reply to a routine howdy? 

Do you deliver an organ recital, as many older people do? More important, how does your voice sound when you reply—half full of strawberries or half full of wet concrete?

I bumped into a friend in his eighties (call him Luke) and asked the usual question and he said, "I've just had a triple bypass and a hip replacement!"

What tone of voice did you imagine—depressed, tragic, piteous, whiny, fearful or worried? Wrong wrong wrong. His voice was joyful and triumphant and he went on to say, "I'm feeling better than I have for years." Then he rushed away to a meeting about his latest venture.

Voices tell their own stories

Yesterday at the pool I was reminded of Luke's exuberant voice when I encountered another friend (call her Matilda) from decades past.

"How are you?"
"Good. I'm fine." (Tentatively, as if to say, being well is a bad sign, it must stop soon.) "But you know, I'm in my eighties." (Gloomily, as if to say, "Therefore by definition my life is completely hopeless and pointless and I'm sure life is horrible for you too, and if not, you mark my words, it will be soon.")
"Well, you've still got that beautiful smile."
"Huh. A smile with the back teeth missing." (Bitchily, as if to say, "I'm ugly and you know it. How dare you say something nice about me? I have lost teeth. I have suffered.")

In three sentences she made me feel sad for her, although she does indeed have a beautiful smile.

Statistically, everyone over 80 is likely to have at least one ominous health condition, so I do not underestimate the troubles of Matilda's life. Her health problems have left visible scars. But this attitude, voiced over and over again in words and tone, surely cramps and squeezes and poisons the spirit leaving no space for hope, no space to appreciate a good swim.

Matilda did me a good turn

I decided to listen to my own answers to these daily howdys—both the words I say and the voice I use. I don't want to be dishonest, but what's appropriate? How much detail is appropriate? If you keep saying the same things, you get boring. If you keep using a gloomy voice, it doesn't just reflect gloom—it spreads gloom.

Minutes later I met yet another friend in the changing room.
"How's your day going, Rachel?"
"Brilliant. I woke up."
"You mean the swim woke you up?"
"No. Every day I wake up, it's a brilliant day." And that is well worth celebrating.

Photo: "Bessie" 1914. Alexander Allison. Commons, Wikimedia.org 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

101-year-old survives the Nepal earthquake: what's his secret?

The tragic May 2015 Nepal earthquake is known to have killed 7000 people already. Rescues have been few, each a miracle.

Where did 101-year-old Funchu Tamang find the stamina to survive? He's an inspiration.

He is tough and he was lucky. And he doubtless has something extra special as well. What, I wonder?


































Screenshot from AsiaOne, 4 May 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Anne Karpf on aging: you're doing it now, and it's fine

I read "How to age" by Anne Karpf on my Kindle, and reviewed it for Amazon. I totally agree with Karpf's attitude towards aging — embrace aging, start young, it's continuous, it's interesting, it's growth, it's part of life. But alas, this is not easy in a culture that hates and fears old people and all they symbolise.

Some people may be disappointed in the book because of the title, which is misleading — and that's a shame. (And oh the agony of choosing a title...) Also, what a strange, depressing book cover! Title and cover don't do this important book justice.

My review

Anne Karpf reveals the extent of gerontophobia in the west — with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for it.

Don’t be misled by the title: this is not a how-to book, but a long, eloquent essay reflecting on a big topic. It’s not easy to overhaul your attitude towards aging from a dreaded disability to an essential, valuable, lifelong process. However, at the end, we see how “Gina” incorporates the author’s attitudes towards aging into her own life. She started her personal how-to programme after her grandmother’s funeral by resolving:
“1. Never again to say of someone ‘she must have been beautiful’, as though age were some necrotizing organism that eats away at beauty.
“2. Whenever she felt anxious about her own encroaching wrinkles, to imagine herself fifteen years older so that, in comparison, she looked positively peachy. She thought of this as a reverse facelift.
“3. To remember that Betty, until the very end, thought that life was an adventure: she was always seizing new opportunities, conversing with strangers and reading new books.”
I recommend this book.