East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


Reading for writing

41I5CmtqNWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_On the subject of writing handbooks, I think I already expressed my unorthodox views – as far as I’m concerned, if it works for you it’s fine.
Me, I collect the things – and my friends know, and often give me writing books for my birthday, or for Christmas.

One thing I think is a pity is, most writing handbooks are written with the absolute beginner in mind – they spend all of the time talking about Point of View, Show Don’t tell, Infodumps and Exposition, and then maybe they give us the short version of the Hero’s Journey.
Nothing really wrong with that but, ok, let’s say I got that part by the time I was 16 and by the time I was 20 I had learned – thanks to authors like Tom Robbins or Elmore Leonard or Lawrence Block or Karl Hiaasen – that all of that stuff was good and fine and writing was something else altogether.

So I do collect writing books, but I really really cherish advanced books.
And I was given one for my birthday – it’s called Narrative Design: working with imagination, craft and form, it was written by Madison Smartt Bell, and it is a book about reading. Continue reading

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The Good Stuff

john-d-macdonald-60sYesterday I wrote great writers are those that can actually write down what we feel, but we so far have been unable to express with the same economy and focus.

Here’s John D. Macdonald, from the introduction to his short story collection, The Good Old Stuff.

First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties–emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties. Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief…. I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer’s devising. Next, I want him to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing. And I like an attitude of wryness, realism, the sense of inevitability. I think that writing–good writing– should be like listening to music, where you pick out the themes, you see what the composer is doing with those themes, and then, just when you think you have him properly analyzed, and his method identified, he will put in a little quirk, a little twist, that will be so unexpected that you read it with a sens of glee, a sense of joy, because of its aptness, even though it may be a very dire and bloody part of the book. So I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write.

He makes it sound almost easy.


Learning Editing for the Wrong Reason

The Dawn Patrol (1938 film)

The Dawn Patrol (1938 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its’ very late (4 am) and I’m very tired, having spent the day editing two scenarios for a roleplaying game, for a total of 15.000 words.

My brother helped me – we traded texts so that we would not suffer from “copy blindness”, but it’s been tough anyway.

And while I edited, I started thinking about some weird stuff going on in the heads of the people around here.

Last week a guy selling his services as an editor (in a rather unprofessional way – in my opinion, but that’s another matter) claimed many of his clients are not writers, but actually readers, in search of an approach to narrative which will allow them to understand if the book they are reading is worth their time.

Now, this idea is so mindboggingly stupid that I still want to believe it’s just a plain lie.

But just think about it for a second – people learning editing (which is something that requires long time and extensive practice, and there’s not two editors alike anyway) to be able to decide if they like what they are reading.

Based on the same principle, I should take a flying licence to watch The Dawn Patrol or study direction and composition to decide whether I like Dave Brubeck‘s music or not.

It’s demented.

And yet, there is this feeling, a lot of readers out there are not reading anymore, but they wish to wrestle with the story, outwit the author, and probably show they are better than him.
As if it was a video game, in which you need to outwit the programmers in order win.
And yet, you don’t need to get adegree in programming to play Monkey Island and have fun.

Weird people.

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Creative Task – Ulysses, The Odyssey and me

Homer was also called Melesigenes (son of Mele...

Homer was also called Melesigenes (son of Meles) by the name of the brook which flowed by Smyrna, and today, through İzmir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first story that really struck me was probably the Odyssey*.
Not in its original version: the Homer poem was adapted in a number of forms and media, and I guess I first found a simplified illustrated version among my uncle’s old books, in my grandmother’s attic.
A “boys library” book from the fifties of some sort.
I was six, and I was learning to read.
A TV adaptation was produced and broadcast in Italy in 1968, featuring some state-of-the-art SFX (for the time), and co-directed by Italian fantasy cinema giant, Mario Bava; I probably caught a rerun in ’73 or ’74, more or less while I was reading it in school – this time in a comic-book adaptation.
And later still I finally read some of the original, again as part of the History and Literature curriculum in school.
So, let’s say that between the ages of six and twelve, I was exposed to multiple re-tellings of the same story.

And the story is straightforward and well-known – a veteran of the War of Troy, Ulysses is on his way back home to Ithaca, together with his crew and companions. He faces a number of challenges, often being himself the instigator of the problems he is going to face. He meets mythical creatures and strange phenomena, he seduces and is seduced by dangerous women, he faces and defeats various enemies, he finally comes home to reclaim his own.

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story is episodic, and part of it is narrated in the first person as a flashback by Ulysses himself.
The Odyssey is also used as a classic example of the so called Monomyth, or Arch-plot – not that I cared much as a kid.

What captured me as a kid and still stays with me today is the fact that Ulysses is an explorer – a man of intelligence and cunning, not just a muscular hero. His problems often arise from his cunning and his curiosity – a dumber hero would probably never get caught in some of the situations Homer describes.
Ulysses is not a martial hero, and while being an action character, he speaks for the intellectual thrills of adventure, for the fascination of the unknown, as much as he does for the more traditional challenges involving brawn and bravery.
To a rather solitary kid in a large industrial city, the adventures of Ulysses spoke loud and clear.

Then there is the world in which Ulysses moves – a world in which human intelligence is matched against supernatural occurrences, capricious gods, strange creatures.
It’s a fantasy world (or, at the time of Homer, a science fiction world), and yet it is superimposed on a real geography, a real history.
It’s a strange world, but one that to a kid – or an adult – is extraordinarily exciting.


As a kid, being able to read about cyclops and sirens, about ghosts and gods, and yet find books with photographs of the treasures of Troy, maps of the Greek isles in which the places mentioned by Homer could be found, was an exploration in itself.
And I think in the end being exposed to such a massive dose of Odyssey in my early years led to a number of personal choices in matters as different as deciding my course of studies, setting my reading tastes, and finally influencing my writing.

* It’s a close thing with the Arabian Nights, which was heavily featured in my childhood, in the form of bedtime stories, coloring books,  and assorted media adaptations. But I guess the Odyssey came first and struck deeper.