Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rules for writing fiction

The Guardian went and asked a bunch of writers for ten rules of writing fiction apiece - some of the funnier ones are reproduced below.

Essentially, there are no rules.

Just write.


(Original article is here(part one) and here(part two))

Using adverbs is a mortal sin

- Elmore Leonard

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

- Ian Rankin

Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

- Margaret Atwood

Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

- Roddy Doyle

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said"

- Roddy Doyle

If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: "Niet" becomes "Nietzsche", "phoy" becomes ­"photography" and so on. ­Genius!

- Geoff Dyer

Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

- Anne Enright

It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

- Jonathan Franzen

(Yup, I'm never writing that Booker Prize winning novel - me and the internet? Inseparable.)


- Neil Gaiman

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

- Al Kennedy

If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

- Michael Moorcock

(Oh and Terry Goodkind does NOT follow that rule. SO much ranting on about free market capitalism while standing around.When will he learn? No one talks like that!)

No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.

- Colm Toibin

Talent trumps all. If you're a ­really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni's Room. Without "overwritten" prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, ­crucially, only by understanding what they're for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

- Sarah Waters

(Mm, put this up because people seem to love the hard bright faceted Hemingway style these days - and while I don't deny Hemingway's genius - it's not the only way to write. Diversity of style is what makes the world of literature so varied and rich. It can be fun to revel in lush ornate Angela Carter-esque prose at times.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Neruda and WCW at lunch

Fun lunch with Y today, soup and good chat about inter alia, Neruda, imagism, mergers and acquisitions and law school. We started talking shop rather a lot but ended off with a discussion of the gorgeousness of Neruda's poetry.

There's nothing wrong with the mundane but it's nice to have excursions into the sublime once in awhile - went back to work with some half remembered Neruda lines reverberating around my head and feeling thrills down my spine.

Promised to send her some William Carlos Williams - there's such a sense of cleanness about his verse. One gets the same sense with well taken photographs - this clarity of vision - when every object speaks and is heightened beyond its everyday self. (Gah, I know there's a Harold Bloom line on this somewhere but I haven't got the book with me now so I can't type it out)

Below are three very commonly reproduced WCW poems; I doubt there's a lit student alive who hasn't read that plums poem :) but it has somehow escaped becoming cliched, probably because of its sharp crisp simplicity.



Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains –
Smell of cleanliness –

Sunshine of late afternoon –
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying – And the
immaculate white bed


The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


This is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Be careful of words,
even the miraculous ones.
For the miraculous ones we do our best,
sometimes they swarm like insects
and leave not a sting but a kiss.
They can be good as fingers.
They can be trusty as the rock
you stick your bottom on.
But they can be both daisies and bruises.

Yet I am in love with words.
They are doves falling out of the ceiling.
They are six holy oranges sitting in my lap.
They are the trees, the legs of summer,
and the sun, its passionate face.

Yet often they fail me.
I have so much I want to say,
so many stories, images, proverbs, etc.
But the words aren't good enough,
the wrong ones kiss me.
Sometimes I fly like an eagle
but with the wings of a wren.

But I try to take care
and be gentle to them.
Words and eggs must be handled with care.
Once broken they are impossible
things to repair.

-- Anne Sexton


Oh how I love this poem. Brimful of the literary love of words laced with the reminder to be careful with them as "they can be both daisies and bruises" (cf James 3).

Of late, my words have been failing me - in speech (Got ticked off good and proper by Mr Gray on careless use of slang!) and on paper - so for awhile, I might be using the words of others: Lewis, Challies, Sproul, Donne, Elizabeth Jennings and poems poems poems.

Before I was a grown up or anything that required a name or label, I was the girl sitting in her room reading reams of funny rhymes and oddball poems. In this stuttering season, I might go dig some out; poems today are so serious! So full of sex, love gone wrong, suicide (all Plath's fault!) and existentialist angst - gimme some Edward Lear, Shel Silverstein, Mary Oliver, Jonathan Swift and Ogden Nash with a dollop of Oscar Wilde thrown in for good measure please.

Friday, February 12, 2010

From whom all blessings flow

We are in the old year about to enter the new,according to the Chinese calendar. But then confusingly, we're also already in the new year, 2010. So for the last month or so, we've inhabited a liminal, twilight space - in the new year, but also in the old - depending on which calendar/ethnicity you look at.

The thought has occupied me in the last month; this odd magical time that we're in. Mainly though, it struck me that this is the state we'll be in for the rest of our lives, until the day we really go home.

We're fully justified but not yet sanctified. The old has passed and the new has come, but we are not perfected yet, not yet caught up in the clouds, not yet given our completed new selves. We're born again, made new, but still inhabit our old bodies, still tempted by our old temptations, still living on this side of heaven.

We will enter fully into the new year in 24 hours but for the rest of our lives, we'll be waiting to go home and be made new.


For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God,a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God,who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.(2 Cor 5:1-7)


Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him all ye heavenly hosts
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost

sweet impossible blossom

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

- Li-Young Lee


It's not elation, or even happiness exactly. But if one must be exact about it, then there are days when the sun comes in through the windows, music streams out and even though there is nothing in particular to celebrate - no birthdays anniversaries or graduations - it has still been a blessed day, a gift from God.

Life is sweeter in its gentle joys than when feral manic highs overrun the soul. 'specially when you can see, soaring above it all - from the heights of the heavens to the depths of the soul, that God is sovereign.


happy chinese new year!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pluralism, proclamation and politeness

There probably isn't anyone in Singapore who hasn't heard of Pastor Rony Tan being called up by the ISD (Internal security department) then having to make a public apology for his offensive remarks about Taoism and Buddhism.

I don't know what Pastor Rony said in his videos and I haven't any idea if they really are all that offensive/rude but the news coverage of the affair gave rise to concerns about our society's unthinking embrace of a pluralistic worldview and the inaccurate depiction of Christianity as just another religion amongst all the others. I didn't start the day with any notion of blogging about it; current affairs commentary is scarce around here, if you haven't noticed.

But today, I read my pastor's blogpost which addressed the issue and agreed deeply with what he had to say, both about the issue and then some. Here it is:

As Christians we believe in only one true and living God. We believe He is the creator and ruler of everything, of the universe itself. Our faith does not point to us how to live a morally upright life but it points to us that we are all morally corrupt. It further points to us that no amount of moral living can lead us to salvation. It points to us our rebellion against God by rejecting Him and His rule in our lives. It reveals to us that we are all condemned for eternity and the penalty for our sins is death. The death we speak of is not eternal sleep but an eternity spent in hell. We believe that Christ died for our sins at the cross and deliver us into victory through His resurrection.

Our gospel is offensive in many ways. It tells people that we are all sinners, it tells everyone that we are all going to hell without Christ. The fact that we believe in the Triune God and acknowledge only one true God, we are implying that all other gods are not real. This is the truth we hold and a denial of these truths will be as good as denying our faith. Does that therefore imply that the sharing will always be offensive?

The message we share in its entirety is offensive and that is why many attempts have been made to sweeten the gospel and minimized the offence. Is that the solution which we should pursue to avoid being offensive? My answer is an emphatic NO.

There is one thing we must understand; our message is offensive in as far as it is confrontational. However what our truth confronts goes beyond culture, religion, society.
Our message confronts the heart. It confronts the heart that has been in rebellion, a heart that has totally denied God.

We do not and must not sweeten our gospel to make it less offensive but we must not share in an offensive manner. We are fortunate to be living in this nation where there is no restriction of religion. However it does not give us the right to be arrogant in our belief and look down on everybody else who does not believe Christ. It does not give us a right to feel superior because we believe in the One true God. It does not give us the right to be self-righteous, thinking of everyone else as sinner but ourselves.

It is not our brilliance or intellect that has brought us to our faith. God is not a Being whom we have exclusive claim to. All of us belong to Him and not the other way. We are all sinners and the only righteousness that we can boast of is Christ’s and not ours.

I don't know what Rony Tan said; it could well be that he utterly crossed the line in his preaching. But I do know that monotheism in general is unappealing and Christianity in particular is thoroughly at odds with the pluralistic, liberal worldview so prevalent today.

Eilonwy once said something that shocked me to the depths of my liberal pluralistic silly little mind. She told me that 'to be a Christian is to be a bigot. By saying that we believe Christ is the way, the truth and that God is the only true God, we are effectively saying that all the other ways are wrong'.

She was and is still right. That IS what we're saying. It's offensive and confrontational but it is the gospel. So if you're reading this and you think, oh I'm christian but actually I think this is just one of the many ways to God or I'm Christian but all religions are the same in teaching you to do good/participate in social justice causes, then hear me on this: You are NOT christian. You are NOT Christian if you do not affirm that saving faith in Christ is the only way to salvation and restoration of our broken relationship with God.


The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:35,36)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Letter from the frontier: more than bears

Dear World,

There was an attack of the Grouchies this week, I'm afraid. Have I ever told you about Grouchies? I haven't? How remiss of me.

Well, they're small and shaped rather like faster, meaner grizzly bears - but they hunt in packs like killer whales, or wolves.

They've got thick dark brown fur but aside from that, they're really nothing like bears. Bears are sometimes cute but Grouchies - even with the fur - are never ever cute. They're vicious and devilishly clever too; they've learned to wait till a creature is obviously tired, drooping or ill, then they bunch up and pounce all at once, in a flurry of moving dark fur, flashing fangs and claws.

So on Tuesday, as I rounded the corner of my office building - carrying my take away coffee(a dead giveaway if there ever was one!) and slouching (next time, shoulders up and pulled back!) - they sprang an attack. I'd been forewarned about those vicious buggers so I had some defenses up, but still - the suddenness and ferocity of the attack took my breath away. Mind you, this was a small pack - I've heard of much larger ones so perhaps I was just lucky this time.

I shall spare you the details of course! Much too gory for public consumption and anyway, a true gentleman(or woman) never shows off. So to cut to the chase, the battle was won - although not without suffering a bruise or three, and when the sun set on Friday (yes, it was an epic four day battle), I emerged, licking my wounds and limped my way home, tail tucked between my weary legs.

We're friends though so let me tell you - there were some really sticky moments. On Thursday morning, I really wasn't sure if I'd make it. Fortunately, I had an English companion this week - none other than the inimitable Mr C S Lewis. Oh, I could just gush on about that man. It made such a world of difference - to have him in the fight beside me. For some reason, the English have that effect ; it must be all that stiff upper lip keeping they do. Don't mock the insistence on elevenses and tea drinking! They do help keep the spirits up and one feels fortified and willing to charge right on. That's why even though we were outnumbered, by dint of gritting our teeth and plugging ahead - victory was ours at the last.

So here we are. On the shores of Friday Evening, quite exhausted and willing to pitch tent, have some cocoa and tumble into bed. Oh, there'll be other battles tomorrow and next week. But tomorrow and next week can worry about themselves for now. Only,do excuse my grammar and spelling this week, I'm so tired I can hardly see straight.

Good night World, write me sometime - one gets rather lonesome out here, with only the stars for company. Mr Lewis is frightfully comforting of course, but you know what those luminaries are like. They'll show up when you need them - thank God for that - but otherwise, in the between and betwixt, you're on your own.

Besides, its always so inexpressibly nice, getting letters in the mail or postcards from the edge.

Much Love,


(Postscript: must bring my cute refillable mug for takeaways next time. Save the earth and all that but also all the better to trick 'em with; nothing says bright and chipper more than a flowery mug)