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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Writers read: the plus and minus of writing in the present tense

The Score is a delightful novel about a smashed grand piano and its people. 
As a reader I was happy to be whisked along by the story of Stefan the desperate piano restorer and his unlikely helpers. Attractions include a vivid bunch of characters in various predicaments; an interesting setting in the community housing in Newtown, Wellington, only a short bus ride from my place; and a friendly, confident style.
As a writer, I started pondering the problems of writing an entire novel in the present tense.

  • You can only dive into the past by making a character speak or think about it. You can't take us there.
  • The emphasis is likely be on constant activity. It's difficult to step back for a breather, to reflect on events.
  • If you are telling events as they happen, it's hard to keep the timeline realistic.
  • Your voice must be very engaging to maintain the reader's commitment. A "Hey, look at this!" tone can be tiring.
Adrienne Jansen handles the challenge expertly. The present tense suits the helter-skelter plot and conveys the minute-by-minute confusion of her characters' lives, which are certainly messy. Altogether this is a charming novel, warm and human.
Many a  brilliant novel has been written in the present tense, but it's a heck of a lot harder than it looks. So before deciding to use the present tense in fiction, take a deep breath. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Writers read: for non-fiction, be your reader

When writing fiction, I've been told very firmly by publishers and agents to picture precisely where my novel would be shelved in a bookstore. In other words, to know my audience.

Fortunately, I write novels for fun and only fun, so I ignore this advice. I don't care who reads them. That's extreme, but many a fabulous novel has broken the mould and found its own surprising audience.

Here comes the ominous "However."

However, for non-fiction, this would be foolish: you certainly need to know who you want to read your book. Otherwise you might patronise them or bore your readers.

Lauren Earl has no problem knowing her audience. She is her audience, or was a year or two ago.

Her audience: young people leaving the family home for the first time to share a flat. But what flat? Where? When? How? Who with? These huge questions can lead to chaos, drama, fear and malnutrition — but that won't stop flatting from being a great adventure.

Lauren Earl's marvellous Flatter's Survival Guide hits exactly the right note for her target audience, because she's been there, done that. It's funny and silly and the advice is spot on.

"Look for any notes posted around, as they can be a sign of passive-aggressive flatmates."
"Everyone seems normal until you get to know them."
"There will be squabbles, you wait and see."

Give this book to — you know who. They'll love it. They'll still make lots of bad decisions, but hey, that's OK.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writers read: single serve of food or words

What an excellent book for people who live and eat alone.

Penny Oliver, a seasoned food writer, has rustled up an inspiring cookbook featuring meals for one.

Many people feel dispirited when they eat alone. At least half the fun of good food is sharing with friends or family or ... anyone.

That's not me. I cook twice a day for myself, three times if you count porridge. And usually I say 'Yum that's good!' at least once per meal.

All the more reason to relish these healthy, hearty, colourful little meals-on-a-page. I envy Penny's lovely casserole dishes for one person, too.

This book sends a strong message: you may be alone, but you are worth cooking for.

That's a good message for a writer, too — to think of your reader as a real person, someone to respect, someone reading your book all alone.

And of course you can write in single serves. Think of all the novels written on cell phones (keitai shousetsu) or even as a series of tweets. Some novels are written in tiny chapters, a page and a half long. That's enough to move the plot forward and keep your lonesome readers reading.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Writers read: inspired by a baby book

Very happy chap reading a new Little Fronds board book by Matthew Williamson and Fraser Williamson
What can you learn from this new board book, as a writer? It could not be any more simple. Surely you, a sophisticated adult writer, can learn nothing from this?

Farm by Matthew Williamson and Fraser Williamson has got exactly the right number of words, and not one more. That's plenty. That's perfect.

Who says it's perfect? This small person says so with his body language, and he is the expert.

  • He can turn over the pages all by himself.
  • He can say pussy cat cat cat cat cat cat when he sees the picture of the cat.
  • He is a very happy reader.

Watching a very happy reader is inspiring for a writer. That's one of the greatest rewards of writing, isn't it?

Oh, and there's another new Little Fronds book too: Beach.

Little Fronds books from Penguin NZ.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What to do with your first novel: write your own rejection slip

I've just read a friend's first novel on Kindle. I wish I hadn't.

Or rather, I wish I had read it in manuscript form, not as a published ebook.

And I wish she had asked me for a few tips.

But I imagine it's particularly painful asking for feedback when you are a senior communications consultant who has been writing reports and critiquing and correcting other people's work for the last 15 years. Or perhaps my friend wanted to keep fiction writing as a private treasure, not to be tinkered with by others.

The thing is, most people who actually finish a first novel quite rightly experience a burst of euphoria. Yes! To finish writing a novel is a mighty, marvelous, massive achievement. You are amazing! Your home town should declare a public holiday in honour of You and celebrate your achievement with fireworks and brass bands.

Even so, this was a first novel, written all alone in a creative cocoon. Is yours like the one I have just read — all description and no action? Endless cups of tea (or swigs of gin) and flashbacks? Characters that we can never like?

There are so many skills to learn as a novelist that it's impossible to master them all in one go: plot, character, dialogue, momentum, description, pace and structure are just the start. You learn little by little by writing more and more and more, again and again.

And then there's spelling. All first novels need a severe copy-edit, if nothing else, because we literally do not see our own errors of grammar, phrasing, spelling and formatting.

Kindle will not reject your unready manuscript: now you must write your own rejection slip — or at least a Needs more work letter. That's an impossible task for a new writer. With a first novel you are inexperienced by definition, so inevitably you misjudge the quality. It cannot be otherwise. Sometimes you think your book is much better than it really is.

So enjoy the euphoria. Celebrate. But please, for your own sake, don't publish your adored creation at this stage. You're a good writer and an expert business communicator, but you're not a novelist—yet. When you move on to the next stage and write something that's as much fun to read as it was to write, you'll be so relieved you didn't publish prematurely.

Years later, you'll look back on this manuscript in wonder. You'll toy with the idea of revising it, but it cannot be salvaged because you have moved on. Instead you may recycle one character or a snippet of conversation or perhaps the setting. And your next book will bring much more pleasure to you and your readers.

Image of Hypatia: in the public domain. I think she is rejecting her suitor. But he'll live.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Elsie's Scale of Terribleness: defusing a happy child's grief and despair

I thought I'd share with you Elsie's Scale of Terribleness.

You know how kids come home from school and say, "Today was the worst day in my entire life!" And they think life could hold nothing worse, because, thank heavens, nothing worse has happened to them so far.

But if they are inclined to dramatise and sob and collapse at the general Terribleness of Their Day, you might try using Elsie's Scale of Terribleness. That might bring a sense of proportion. Or not.

Here is the code to the glorious chart above.

Left Axis: the Scale of Terribleness, where 1 is only slightly terrible, and 10 is as terrible as it gets.
Bottom Axis: Terrible Events, as placed by Elsie, aged almost 10.

A = 1 (on the scale of terribleness)
I made a mistake at netball but it didn't change the score. (No harm done.)

B = 2  Someone was mean to me at school. (I suffered, I need sympathy. Moving on.)

C = 3 All day people kept putting the wrong size marble in our marble run, so one part kept breaking and I had to keep fixing it and the sellotape didn't stick properly and they didn't even say they were sorry. (Just let me vent, OK?)

D, E, F: no scenario for these so far. Any suggestions?

G = 7 When my Granny dies. (I can see this can't be fixed but only one person dies and it is inevitable.)

H = 8 When my dog Ivy had to be put down. (That really was terrible and it still makes me cry.)

I = 9 I might do an experiment that results in everybody getting frozen. I know how to undo the damage, but it would cause something worse to happen. (Purely hypothetical. I admit I have never had a 9 experience.)

J = 10 (I contributed this scenario.) War in Wellington. All the houses are burned to the ground and everybody in Wellington dies. (Affects many people, changes my life, and it can't be fixed.)

How to use Elsie's Scale of Terribleness
Your child or grandchild: "Today was the worst day in my entire life." Sigh, sob.
You (after hugging): "So how was it on the Scale of Terribleness?"
Your child, thoughtfully: "About a 2 or a 3."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sunset and a good book

Two book reviews in a row?

Just a coincidence.

Sometimes you just do read a run of excellent books and want to spout on about them.

Two other excellent books I have read lately:

A Delicate Truth by John le Carre. Penguin, Australia (2013)
The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. Text, Melbourne 2012

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The woman who wasn’t afraid

(For Cecilia Vincent)

She wasn’t afraid of angina.
She wasn’t afraid of the buzz-saw
carving through her ribs:
just fix it, she said.

She wasn’t afraid of lazy brain:
give me a jigsaw, she said.
She wasn’t afraid of loneliness:
just love me, she said.

While everyone else
was fixing and giving and loving
she dragged her life from under the bed
and made it dance again.

— Rachel McAlpine, 29 July 2006

Image: poster of Rosie the Riveter, Wikimedia, Creative Commons licence.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Of poetry, blogging and death

On 4 April 2013, my friend Diana Neutze died, after defying multiple sclerosis for well over 40 years.
Diana Neutze (center) with friends on her 70th birthday, 9 March 2009

She had survived for decades by micro-managing every minute of her life, training and instructing a team of dedicated, hand-picked angels (known as carers). 

Inevitably Diana also planned every detail of her death, funeral and burial. The funeral was just right and left me feeling downright happy. 

I was one of those she asked to give a short talk. Others gave a full picture of her life and personality—both of which were vivid and triumphant. I decided to talk about just two things, her poetry and her blog. These reflected my role in her life, which was highly specific: I published her last two poetry books (Furthermore and Reflect); set up a web site for her when requested; set up a blog for her, against her will; and communicated with 53 of her friends and relatives each time her carers posted another blog entry—which, as it turned out, was quite often!

To me these were light burdens because my daily work is all about online communication, accessible web content and the social web. My purpose was to keep the creative part of Diana alive and active and goal-orientated. 

We are lucky if we find a way to be useful that returns more than we invest. My reward came from the "Blog Alert" group—they were hugely appreciative of this simple way of keeping in touch with Diana, and I felt plenty of love coming my way.

The text of my talk follows. I was trying to convey in very few words how writing and social media combined to enrich Diana's life, both inwardly and socially. And I wanted to share snippets from some of her 53 blog-alert supporters.

Farewell to Diana

She did warn us:
… as I have lived, so I will die: fiercely and with full intent.
I want to talk about two features of Diana’s life: her poetry (an individual activity) and her blog (a group activity).

Writing is not just recording a feeling or thought or other experience. Writing is a dynamic process that sculpts and illuminates and transforms experience. As Diana wrote:
my poetry is a good listener, 
and even a teacher,  
skewing my words sideways 
to create a different pattern, 
a wake-up call. 
Writing a poem can make sense of the incomprehensible, and it can help to make the intolerable tolerable. It is a spiritual exercise. Diana wrote:
there is no escape. All journeying must be inward.
But writing became more and more difficult, until everything had to be “written” in her mind and then transcribed by her carers.

Unlike most of you, I am one of the few people who managed to make Diana do certain things against her will—mainly remove the odd semi-colon, and above all, to start a blog. She was vehemently opposed to the blog. She despised the very word blogging. But miraculously, she obeyed me. After that, she could share her poems instantaneously with a large audience.

Diana’s blog gave us all an extraordinary opportunity.  She looked death in the face and invited us to look over her shoulder. This was terrifying, but it was also a privilege.

Strangers also read her blog. For example, she has never met any of the Otaki Ukulele Group.  But last Thursday, when they heard about her death, they played two songs in her honour.

The end of poetry coincided with the end of life.
Dead End
The particularity of pain   
takes over the mind  
right to the very edges, 
an amorphous sludge  
which leaves no space for poetry.
Some of the Blog Alert community wrote valedictions in advance, and I'd like to read some of their words.

Vivienne Stone: All the way through her life’s journey, Diana has actively chosen how she wants to live.
Miriam Frances: Meditation has enriched Diana’s life, and poetry has illuminated it.
Abie Horrocks: She has such an amazing capacity to listen and be cheeky and wise and honest and realistic and prophetic and a little scandalous—sometimes all at once!
Diony Young: Her words and poems always open doors to new places.
Jacquie Pryor: In her poetry, she doesn't avoid the difficult issues, especially the one that is hardest of all: death.
Maureen Eppstein: The clarity of her vision shines through her poems like the light through her walnut tree.

And finally John Chambers speaks for us all about Diana's legacy.

John Chambers: Every time I'm at a difficult juncture, I spontaneously think of her, I hear her words in my heart, I feel the courage and the caring and the power—and I will always think of her, and I will always hear her words.

9 April 2013

These web sites and Diana's publications will be managed by her literary executor, Gabrielle Faith, in future:

Do you really love those old books you have kept?

Shelves of dusty yellow books of some significance.

Lurking in the hallway are a bunch of old books that have been important to me for one reason or another. And this morning Kim Hill interviewed poet Mary Fuefle, poet, who lavishes white-out on old books to reveal a morsel of poetry on each page. The concept of erasure art appealed to me. I immediately invested in a bottle of liquid paper: not something one would normally use in this digital age.
Papermate liquid paper

Surely among those Harlequin romances, Proust, Japanese novels, books on sumo and and other miscellany were plenty of candidates for erasure art?

I picked up one at random—Time on our Side: Growing in wisdom, not growing old by the distinguished psychologist Dorothy Rowe. And inevitably began reading it.

I remember loving this book in 1994 and nodding over insights that lived up to the title. Yet today I could barely be bothered skimming a few chapters.

One interesting chapter is "Fearing to grow old", describing how our concepts of young, middle-aged and old vary wildly according to our own age. Even this chapter I could barely read, because the benchmark has shifted so radically since the date of publication. Reading about people in their 60s being treated as geriatrics (and regarding themselves that way) was more than I could stomach.

Life expectancy rose dramatically last century. That is truly wondrous, a miracle. But it makes this book, doubtless profound in its time, irrelevant to my impatient mind today.

The irony doesn't escape me: I am applying ageist prejudices to a book published 20 years ago.

Will I use this book for erasure art? Couldn't bear to. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

From scanned PDF to OCR to Word to ebook: not so fast, mate

I have been trying to explain to a friend why she can't just take a scanned PDF of a book, get it converted into a Word document with Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and send it straight to Smashwords.

Now, Smashwords is fantastic, and every author should check it out. Starting with your Word document, the Smashwords software (which bears the splendid name of Meatgrinder) converts a single source manuscript into every popular form of ebook, including epub, iBook, Kindle and of course the familiar PDF.

And OCR is fantastic. Who would have imagined  that software could virtually read photographs of the pages of a novel and translate the squiggles into pages of words.

However, OCR has its limitations.

Every few months when I have a spare minute, I puddle away at preparing my backlist for distribution as e-books. My plan is to put the old novels up for free—no hurry, though.

Yesterday The Limits of Green had my attention. That was my first novel, published by Penguin in 1985. Below is a sample of how it emerged from the OCR treatment. Characters were indeed recognised, but not always correctly. OCR is more like willing puppy than an expert.

I see at least 13 errors in 16 lines, not counting the formatting. Yes, a human hand is needed—and I am happy about that. I'm thoroughly enjoying my copyediting chore because this involves re-reading a novel I wrote in my youth. Such exuberance! Such reckless confidence! Such mobile-phone-less ingenuity! I look forward to releasing this baby into the wild.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yet another poem about a dead cat

In this case, the splendid British Blue Takanohana. She spent her days in a state of catatonic inertia, barely bothering to twitch. But then again, the wildlife in my apartment is pretty limited.

That cat

That cat is a capital cat,
a most satisfactory cat.

That cat may act like a mat
but she isn't exactly flat.

That cat billows and flows,
a cloud that grows and grows.

That cat is a regal cat,
a womanly cat, a curvy cat.

But you'd better not call her fat.
She doesn't like that.

Rachel McAlpine

You may share this poem freely, but always include my name as author.
More poems free (for now) to a good home on Smashwords

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Love poem from a cat that hunts

Cats are in the news right now as instinctive hunters who slaughter New Zealand's precious wild life. And they do. They do.

I have my own companion cat, but her hunting is safely limited to cicada safaris in the apartment and on the deck and roof.

I enjoy the ambivalence towards cats shown in the poem, Offering. Hope you do too. At least this moggy catches a mouse-poem, not a bird-poem.


for months now
I have brought you nothing

but today you will see on the step
a slight grey poem
barely flecked with blood
so lightly was it caught

this purse of fur contains
bones of flute
notes of flesh
palpitation quelled

it is the only gift
for one as quick as you
despite your speed
you cannot hunt like me

still I would swallow the lot
if you rebuked my purring
if you did not stroke my neck

Rachel McAlpine

You may share this poem freely, but always include my name as author.
Rachel McAlpine on Smashwords: poetry books are free—for now.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The bravest poem you'll read this year

My friend Diana Neutze has been using poetry for years as a life-saving outlet for her creativity and communication. In the process she has kept her brain athletic and inspired many others.

Diana is now, after decades of suffering inflicted by multiple sclerosis, frighteningly debilitated. Yet she is still writing some of the bravest poems you'll ever read.

Today she posted on her blog a poem setting a deadline for her death:
The Third Bell, by Diana Neutze

At the same time she sent a supplementary letter to her friends giving a realistic picture of her physiological state. Nobody could read those medical facts and still imagine that there is any other future for Diana but a painful death, perhaps a lot sooner than 40 weeks.

Without those facts, you may be tempted to imagine, "Oh if only she could do this or that—take this new treatment—be more optimistic."

No. This is not a whim, not a decision taken lightly. Diana faces facts, makes a rational decision, then processes tragedy into spiritual growth.

I think you will marvel at her courage, honesty, and skill with words.

Diana's blog: 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Love poems free to a good home: Smashwords

Need a love poem? Most people do at some time in their lives.
I'm sharing a book of love poems.

Lover Poems by Rachel McAlpine on Smashwords

Poems for lovers, happy or not. In this book of love poems, certain lines may express precisely what you feel but cannot say. The delicious agonies of longing. Confusion when a love affair goes wrong. The frivolous, funny, and comforting aspects of love. Enjoy!  You'll know when to use the following poem...

Love Song
Your forehead
is the curve
of the world.

Through your eyes
I slide
into a jungle
a tangle
of flying vines
of blood feasts
of jagged cries
of silent

Your blood
has the beat
of the sea.
It pulls
to the pulse
of the moon.

If I die
before I lie
with you
rocks will rain
from heaven
on my grave.

Rachel McAlpine

You may share this poem freely, 
but always include my name as writer.

Get the whole book. Free.

P.S. Lover Poems is in the Smashwords Premium Catalog. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Heavy metal (type)writers

It's two years since I began this blog. I intended it to be a personal notebook about the peculiar personal process of aging. Blame my mother, who died absurdly young, almost-but-not-quite on purpose. 

Well, I'm over it. Had to do it. Over it. The deadline for Hamletting has passed. Now let's get cracking on the new stuff. New books to read and new books to write.

Those antique typewriters are icons for people who write. Every second writer's blog flaunts a photo of one of the old pedal machines.

I've never used one in my life. I began with a Hermes Baby: brute force was required and it squeaked when I hit the keys. Cute, but nostalgia? Zero. Give me a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air any day.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing process: the novel as patchwork skirt

The novel I'm writing this year began as 26 colourful patches, otherwise perceived as short stories.

My other novels were, of course, written from scratch. The writing process is always a hard muscly battle between structure and story, with myself as a bewildered but ambitious adjudicator. 

With my first novel, The Limits of Green, I just jumped on the elephant of the story and held on like grim death when it bolted. Then I tried to impose structure as an afterthought. 

With more experience, I became more of a sumo wrestler than a novice arm-wrestler, but neither is a match for an elephant. Writers always attempt to prod, cajole or even programme the elephant to follow a structured path, and to some extent writers will always fail, because story must win. It's a fun fight although there is much at stake.

As I was foolish enough to reveal my current project, some friends inevitably ask, "How's it going? How much have you written so far?" 

I can't blame them, because I also announced my game plan prematurely: to write at least some words every day. Word count and duration are irrelevant: 100 words or 1,000 words, 15 minutes or 4 hours—I don't care. I just write something and the novel grows.

This book didn't start as a blank page: it started with 45,000 words—26 stories that must now be sprinkled evenly through the narrative. The stories are like multi-coloured patches that I have roughly pinned on a canvas skirt template. 

The main narrative begins as 26 bits and pieces of cloth. Right now, the narrative pieces are small, pale and shapeless. As I write, fabric will be removed and replaced and destroyed and shifted and shaped and stretched until the entire canvas is covered and the skirt as a whole emerges. 

I cannot predict what the general impression will be—bright or sombre, short or long, bristly or smooth, A-shaped or O-shaped, flat or textured. (It won't be frilly.) However, after the battle of structure and story, bones and colour is over, I hope to find something coherent, graceful and astonishing. 

I'm over real-life patchwork skirts, but in my youth I created a couple of beauties. One was constructed in tiers: that was so easy it was virtually cheating. The other was sleek and subtle, cut on the cross and featherstitched. 

Photo of a vintage patchwork skirt: found on e-Bay

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year writing and the Google novelist trap

Hello there, new year. You always make me feel a tiny bit inadequate. I believe it's normal to be able to sum up the old year in a nice little bundle. To figure where you've been and where you're going. Make resolutions, I suppose.

But life is messy, and my mature brain is a network of fibres hopelessly tangled by some metaphysical kitten. (An escapee from Schrodinger's cat-box, no doubt.) Every thought is connected to every other thought, if you follow Ariadne's thread far enough into the maze.

See what I mean? Away they go...

This week my beloved brain's wanderlust has been more obvious than usual. I'm writing a novel (yay!) and I make reasonable progress in the morning. Afternoons, not so much. In mid-sentence I tend to slide into Googleworld in search of, for example:
  • the meaning of Libertia Peregrinas (or is it Peregrinans?)
  • a biography of Anne-Marie Libert, 19th century Belgian botanist
  • photos of shearers' quarters on Canterbury farms
  • the difference between golf carts, ATVs and quad bikes
  • earthquake damage in Rangiora.
None of this information is necessary for me to write a perfectly good draft chapter, but I just can't resist. Research is a tunnel—an enticing tunnel, crammed with would-be novelists blundering around in the dark.

And so is blogging.

Why the New Zealand native longfin eel (tuna) should be the official symbol for the Year of the Snake: see my business blog.

Photo: Inside Lyttelton Tunnel (c) FishnChips on