Saturday, August 15, 2015

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.

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. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to talk about travel (morning thought)

Going places! Marrakech train station.

After a trip to an exotic place, you are obliged to talk about it. Friends ask you about Your Trip (especially in New Zealand, where every country except Australia and home is considered exotic). Or you have an urge to talk about it anyway.

But how? Travel talk can be such a pleasure, but it can also go seriously wrong. Half your audience has already been to the same destination, and the other half has been there in spirit thanks to TripAdvisor and Facebook.

Is there a taxonomy of travel talk? I have been watching how others do it, and I hope to learn from their triumphs and mistakes.

A. Travel talk that I enjoy hearing
  1. Personal experiences combined with insights into broader topics.
  2. The person who respects your knowledge and adds to it.
  3. A story steeped in joy or excitement or delight or drama or fear: strong frank personal feelings.
  4. People who travel with a specific purpose: how did things pan out?
  5. A story about people.
  6. An amazing fact that I have never heard before.
  7. Stories that grow and grow in response to the listener's questions.

B. Travel talkers who drive me nuts 
I wish you all the best, but I do not want to be you.
  1. The bore who tells you 1,000 (dubious, random, context-less) "facts" about a place.
  2. The know-it-all who believes spending 5 minutes in a place gives their every opinion the ring of authority.
  3. The full-time cruise traveller who compares tours, not places. 
  4. The relentless super-generaliser.
  5. Mr and Mrs Cost-a-Lot, Mr and Mrs They-Can't-Make-Chips, and their friends.
I'd better get an executive summary ready so that I don't lapse into category B.

**
And by the way: jotting down morning thoughts is more demanding than I expected. On a train and planes, I did not jot. Now I'm home, there's a little problem of time. Well, that's just for the record: it's all good.




Friday, April 25, 2014

Mindfulness and meditation for beginners

Meditate for health and strength and relaxation and creativity. Meditate because it feels nice. Whatever. But if you meditate with the explicit goal of spiritual transformation, you lay yourself open to certain risks. Failure. Disappointment. Self deception.

Of course you may experience spiritual transformation while meditating. Sometimes you may drift into a delicious, quasi-mystical state. You certainly may find emotions welling up unexpectedly.

But if that's not your cup of tea, be aware that Just Doing It always works.

Be kind to yourself: your meditation is fine fine fine, just the way it is. Simply sitting still in one place for 10–15 minutes brings about a certain calmness and other physiological changes. If your mind keeps straying, so what? Noticing your thoughts and letting them go is a big part of meditation. There's no such thing as bad meditation!

6 misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness
  1. Meditation is hard to learn: no way. I learned in a half-hour session with a visiting guru, after which I just did it. Later refresher courses were interesting and pleasant but not necessary.
  2. It takes a lifetime to learn. Rubbish. You can learn how to meditate by doing a short course, which might take a weekend or six 1-hour sessions.
  3. You have to meditate for 45 minutes twice a day. Says who? 
  4. It's a deep and meaningful experience. Well, it may be, sometimes, yes. But usually it's just a practical habit with short- and long-term benefits, like brushing your teeth.
  5. You can't go it alone. You need to commit to a guru, whether Buddhist, Hindu or California New Age. Ah yes, they would say that, wouldn't they?
  6. Some types of meditation are better or stronger or richer or deeper or morally higher than others. Sure, there are many ways to meditate — breathing, focus, body scanning, mantras...  so experiment. Find a method or methods that you like: they're the best ones for you. 
Look around for courses and books that teach rather than evangelise. You may find them within the medical profession or online or locally.

The Five Minute Meditator: the best beginner's book I know. I give it away in handfuls and recommend it left right and centre. Even the title is calming and encouraging. Eric Harrison's other books give depth and perspective to the history and practice of mindfulness and meditation — but no dogma. His latest book, Mindfulness 101, welcomes the arrival of mindfulness as a new world-wide mainstream craze, because it strips the conventional monk's robe off this practical, useful tool.

The Perth Meditation Centre sells Eric Harrison's books online
Mindfulness Works: secular meditation and mindfulness courses in New Zealand
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Practices with Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Two poems read on video with awesome photos


How to do a poetry reading online?

I decided to maximise the visual attractions with expressive (but not explanatory) photos. And squash myself into a corner.

The decision went that way mainly because I was done. Some day I'll get more daring with the video technology but I'll always favour the simplest delivery.

I hope you enjoy the first two poems that I felt deserved to live beyond the book.

Before the Fall (about fathers and faith)

Square yard garden in the city (about, well, small patches of garden in the city, of course)

Writers read: the discipline and glory of comic books

Not a comic reader? Then open your mind and heart to a whole new-to-you genre with endless variety and strange potential. Adrian Kinnaird has done us a great service in creating this heavily illustrated overview of New Zealand comic books —an industry that was repressed in 1954 only to resurrect in 1977 and grow stronger than ever.

Drawing styles vary from bam-bam-black to pastel cute and back again. Stories range from sinister to same-old to save-the-world. But what these 30-odd cartoonists have in common is a fabulous oddness, a unique vision plastered on paper for all to see.

As an old-fashioned wordsmith, I find much to learn here. 

This is what I love best about the book: a sense of wildness and freedom, as if anything is possible — and likely — in this genre. Every cartoonist has an unmistakable personal style. 

And yet cartoonists work within far tighter constraints than novelists.  Structure is a physical attribute: the cartoonist must completely fill a specific number of pages. There's no wriggle room for redundancy or diversions: beneath an often frivolous appearance, every story must be excessively focused and concise, and structured as precisely as a bespoke suit.

Reading From Earth's End makes me appreciate the simplicity of the novelist's task ... and wish I could draw better. Hm, I think I'll go to a drawing class next year.