A book by its cover…

Have you seen the recent YouTube clip of Jonathan and Charlotte’s audition for “Britain’s Got Talent?” Once again Simon Cowell put his foot in it. He took one look at the shy, overweight young man as he walked out on stage and turned to whisper to his fellow judges, “Just when you think it couldn’t get worse.” (Mind you, he could have been referring to the lovely Charlotte’s decision to wear boots with an otherwise smart outfit of red jacket and black pants… … … Nah!) You’d think he’d have learned his lesson from Susan Boyle but no, his bias against fat, not-so-fashion-conscious and not-so-pretty people once again reared its ugly head. And, sadly, most of the audience were right there with him. I cheered when Jonathan stunned everyone with his bone-tingling voice. As he sang I thought to myself: He’s like a young Pavarotti. I thought it interesting that as the duo left the stage, Cowell said, “I haven’t heard a voice like that since Pavarotti.” Which goes to show the man does have some sense. Pity it’s buried underneath the weight of his prejudice. Why do people immediately assume fat people are stupid, useless and a big joke? What have we done to deserve such labelling? I don’t look at skinny people and immediately assume they’re neurotic, scatter-brained and obnoxious. I don’t look at short people and assume they’re all rejects from the Snow White movie. I don’t look at all tall people and assume they play basketball. I mean, on the law of averages, at least some of them could play football! In a preshow interview Charlotte said, “We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. We should read the book and find out what it’s about.” Sage advice from an intelligent and compassionate young woman. Back in the 1800s, that was the only way to judge a book. They practically all came in a plain cover with just a touch of gilt edging on the spine. You had to read the thing to decide if it was worth keeping in the pool room, or donating to the poor. These days books are often sold or rejected on the strength of the cover alone. That seems a real tragedy to me. Regardless of the cover art, I always read the first couple of paragraphs. These tell me 1) If I’ve read it before. (I have a bad memory for titles), 2) If I like the author’s “voice” and 3) If my interest is piqued. I then read the blurb on the back of the cover to see if the precis of the story, keeps my interest piqued. In today’s world, appearances and first impressions are often the deciding factor in making friends; getting a job; getting a loan; making a sale; being appreciated; being listened to; getting promoted or finding love. Now, I’m not saying appearances aren’t important. I’m all for being clean and reasonably well-groomed. It tells me you care for yourself and you won’t smell, which means I can stand being near you for any length of time. (I know it’s a bit shallow but I have a very sensitive nose.) But, I refuse to judge someone on whether they meet my culture’s standard of beauty, or whether they are younger or older than thirty five. One of the things I’m passionate about is Grace. This world could do with a great big dollop of it spread over every community, into every home and given generously to every individual. How will it happen? Well, it begins with you and me. Spread the love and grace, people, and make the world a better place. And, at least open the cover and read a bit of the book before deciding it’s not for you.      ...

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Warning: Wedding evokes feelings and stuff…

The Old Boy and I attended a wedding on the weekend. He was the officiating minister, which was a delight for me. Partly because I’m always proud of what a great job he does and partly because he looks drop-dead gorgeous in a suit. (He only wears them for weddings and funerals.) The time spent at the marriage celebrations evoked in me all sorts of emotions and memories. We first met the bride when she was just a little girl. She and her family lived in the country town where the Old Boy had his first posting as a pastor. As is the way in small towns, we got to know her family, including her grandparents, very well. The bride’s grandmother, Ruth, was my friend. When I was first diagnosed with cancer Ruth was very upset. She was scared that I would die. While I was still undergoing treatment, Ruth and her husband had a serious car crash. (They’d collided with a cow. No one wins in that situation.) My husband and I went to the hospital to visit her and to support her family as best we could. By the end of that week she was taken off life-support and she was gone. 18 years later, I’m still here. Ironic, isn’t it? It showed me that life is a precious, fragile thing that should be treasured. We all might think and hope that we’ll live to an extraordinary old age and then die in our sleep, but in reality that is the exception rather than the rule. None of us know how long we have. Listening to the young couple say their vows, promising to be faithful companions, sharing the ups and downs of life and pledging their undying love, I suddenly realised how blessed I was. That’s exactly the marriage I have with the Old Boy. We’ve faced some difficult things in our nearly 38 years together – lots of times in hospital, three miscarriages, the death of friends, my mother’s dementia, my parents’ death, changing jobs and homes and communities, for a few years having no or very little income, and now this final journey with the Big C – and throughout it all we’ve dealt with everything together. My husband has kept his promise to cherish me, to love me, to support me and to be my best friend. I think I’ve had the better deal than him, andI’m taking the opportunity right now to tell you all how wonderful he is. Okay, he doesn’t often bring me flowers, or chocolate, or diamonds and he hasn’t bought me my two big dreams: a pool and a pink car. But he is my love, my rock and my better half. He encourages me when I feel like giving up. He gives of himself to others, sometimes to the point of exhaustion and, even though I worry about him, I am so proud of him that sometimes I could pop my shirt buttons. We’re a team. We’re salt and pepper; ebony and ivory; Bib and Bub. I wouldn’t want to spend my life with anyone else. As the years have gone by I have come to realise that I am truly blessed to have such a wonderful marriage. There are a lot of hurting people in the world, wounded by bad relationships: sometimes damaged by alcohol or drug abuse; sometimes damaged by an abusive partner; sometimes devastated by unfaithfulness or cruelty. So, I thank God for giving me the Old Boy. I “give him props” for sticking with me all this time. What a champ! This was your yearly dose of sentimentality. Back to the regular programming next week....

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Three cheers for the Hague

So, Lubanga has been found guilty. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow. ‘Who’s that?’ I hear you ask. He’s described as a ‘Congolese rebel leader’ but I think that’s too polite. I call him a wicked murdering scumbag cockroach – and that’s when I’m feeling magnanimous. He trained his men to kidnap, co-erce, terrify and torture children, forcing them to join his band as either child-soldiers or sex-slaves. Roll out the mill-stone!, I say. (In case you don’t get the reference, I’m quoting Jesus: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a large millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned at the bottom of the sea.”) The sad thing is that Lubanga isn’t the first man to use child-soldiers, and it isn’t restricted to the Congo, but at least he’s the first to pay for it. I saw a World Vision documentary – I think it was in 2002 – about programs in Uganda that tried to rehabilitate former child-soldiers who had either escaped or been rescued. Hearing their stories, seeing the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage done to those children, broke my heart. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Chris Abani’s  Song for Night. This is what I wrote: This beautiful, disturbing, confronting novella is the story of a boy-soldier’s journey through a war-ravaged landscape, searching for his missing platoon. The boy, My Luck, cannot speak; his vocal chords were cut when he joined the mine-sweeping unit. This was supposed to ensure that when the children were blown up, their screams wouldn’t unsettle the others. But, My Luck tells us, “What they couldn’t know was that in the silence of our heads, the screams of those dying around us were louder than if they still had their voices.” (p.17)             Due to the graphic content, Song for Night is best suited for mature teenagers and adults. The protagonist travels through a hellish nightmare, while losing his childhood innocence; forced to witness and take part in rape, dismemberment and murder. Yet, in the story there are also redeeming moments of kindness, affection and hope. It is one of the most powerful stories I have read in a long time. When I came to write my own ‘child-soldier’ story, I knew I couldn’t write out of personal experience like Abani. And, being a white, middle-class urbanite, I didn’t know enough about the landscapes to write convincingly. I’d read an interview with Terry Pratchett, in which he said that he found it helpful to place his characters in a fanciful world (Discworld) and then he was free to deal with the big issues – racism, exploitation, ignorance, war – in a non-confrontational yet thought-provoking way. Hence my decision to place my characters in a fantasy world, with dragons and talking camels. I could concentrate on the characters and their emotional and physical journey, without worrying about getting ‘the facts’ right about their world. As it is a world of my own making, I’m the final authority on it. I think I’ve done a reasonable job with it. My 12 year old reader loved it. My adult readers loved it (and, no, they’re not family members). The reader for the agent said back in November 2011 that she warmed immediately to the lead character and thought the writing was ‘strong’. She looked forward to reading it. I sent it off, according to submission guidelines. I got another email from her in January asking where it was. She works in a different office and obviously no-one thought to forward it. I sent it again and she said she’d read it ‘asap’. Obviously my idea of asap and her’s are two different matters. I’m still waiting. Come on lady! It’s topical, it’s a good read and I’m running out of life-time! Meanwhile, I’m hoping and praying that Lubanga is the first of many to face justice for their wickedness.  Good on The Hague: more power to you!...

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Have pen, will correct!

While I’ve been ill I haven’t managed to do any work; either my own or for my clients. For a while there I was so ill I didn’t even care. Then, as my health began to improve, I was frustrated but still unable to think long enough, or clearly enough, to do anything. In the past week I’ve managed to do a little reading. Unlike my usual style of devouring a book in a matter of hours, one tome lasted for several days. I put it down to the phenomenon of falling asleep after every chapter. This is no comment on the quality of the story-teller; I fell asleep after getting dressed, after feeding the dog, after going to the toilet… However – put it down to not-well-therefore-crabby – I became more and more irked by the wanton recklessness with which basic punctuation and grammatical construction was tackled. Now I don’t blame the author (entirely). I don’t know about other countries but here in Australia, beginning in the 70’s, education went through a mini-dark ages,  during which spelling, grammar, punctuation and legibility were all sacrificed on the altar of “free expression”. Teachers, like me, who dared to correct the scrawled mess that was supposed to pass as a story, were accused of repressing the child’s creativity. What a load of cr*p! If a builder doesn’t bother to lay any foundations, ignores the need for support beams and doesn’t use any bolts, screws or hinges because “they ruin the design”, people wouldn’t say: “He’s just expressing himself.” They’d complain that he’s a shonky builder and should lose his license. And, rightly so. Of course, this attitude rested on the ridiculous premise that “everyone can write”. It’s true that everyone can learn to shape letters, form them into words and place them in sentences. But, not everyone can craft a great story. Not everyone is a great novelist. That idea makes as much sense as saying that everyone can be a physicist, or a brain surgeon, or a theoretical mathematician. It’s true that many writers use the technique of writing the first draft without any correction – just letting the story flow. However, they then go back and edit and shape the “creative splurge” to form it into a story with shape, definition, clarity and meaning.  For this they need the “boring” tools of grammar, punctuation and spelling. No, I don’t entirely blame the author, although it’s not hard these days to educate oneself about these things. What really burns me up is that the publisher of said annoying tome is a well-known publishing house. How did they let this stuff get through? Where’s the quality control? I know many companies have got rid of their editors, to save money, (Don’t get me started!) but they can still request the author to submit their manuscript to a private editor. I know that some great writers break the rules, but they do so knowing what rules they’re breaking and why. It’s obvious in their work that they know what they’re doing. It’s also obvious when a person doesn’t know what they’re doing. The frustrating thing is that it needn’t be that way. Okay, I feel a little better for having vented. I know I’m a little bit obsessed with this stuff, but literature is important. Science might represent the brains in the human body and theology the spirit, but the creative arts represent the soul. It expresses the emotions, the personality, the essence of what it means to be human. I think it should be expressed in a way that is clear, beautiful and profound. I’m back to work next week, if only for a few hours a day. I miss wielding my red pen. (It’s so...

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Did you miss me?

In reply to the myriad of concerned emails, facebook wall postings and queries sent to this website, I apologise for the missed post last week. I had no idea so many people would be disconcerted and emotionally deprived! (Don’t cut yourself on the sarcasm, it can sting like lemon juice on a paper cut!) I’ve had a severe reaction to the medication given through the IV a couple of weeks ago. The only thing I can compare the pain to, was when I had shingles in my left eye. In both cases the painkillers were a joke. I couldn’t walk properly; I needed help to get back off the toilet; I couldn’t hold a mug and consequently haven’t had a cup of coffee for over two weeks now. The headache and neck pain was so severe I could barely stand to keep my eyes open. Food and I have become passing acquaintances, but I haven’t noticed any reduction in my body fat. (B*st**d! I guess the Universe is determined that I be a fat woman. Just as well I’m so good at it.) Anyhoo – I’m now on the mend but still a long way from being okay. Unfortunately low blood pressure has joined the party, so I can only remain upright for a short period of time. I had to have a rest before I could write this, and I’m heading to bed as soon as it’s done. Ain’t life just grand?! I feel sorry for my clients who will have to wait longer than they first expected for their manuscripts to be edited. I’ve given all of them the option of going elsewhere, so we’ll see what happens. It’d be lovely if they could stick with it, but I wouldn’t blame them if they moved on. I’m seeing the specialist next week to discuss an alternate medication. YAY! I’ve already decided I’m not going through this every month for six months. Mind you, I’m asking for a full disclosure of side effects before I agree to anything else. It might be better not to do anything. I want my life back. For all the writers out there who are (im)patiently waiting to hear back from that editor/agent/publisher (like I am), take my situation into your calculations. Perhaps that editor/agent/publisher is fighting a nasty illness; perhaps they have serious family problems; perhaps they’ve been in a car accident… Editors, Agents and Publishers are more than their job. They’re people too, with all the issues in their lives that we face in ours. Meanwhile, thanks to that one faithful blog-reader who asked how I was. God bless you. As for everyone else: Is it worth my while writing these things? Is anyone out there? Helloo – oo-...

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