Archives for category: Writing

Photo: Irish Times

The sun is shining
The wind moves
Naked trees
You dance

Maybe this isn’t the greatest poem you ever read, but it’s probably not the worst. As the work of a computer, acting on inspiration supplied by this photograph, it becomes a horse of a different color. Not too shabby I think we have to allow.

Book Patrol brings this to our attention, citing Microsoft Research Blog as its source.

I have speculated on machine writing before, here and here. I’m not sure there’s anything much to fear in this. In fact we are forced take on trust the reality of most of the authors we read: we don’t sit face to face with them after all. And if, say, Hemingway surprisingly turned out to have been a cunningly-designed robot would that make any difference to our enjoyment of his books?

How many successful writers have children who also become successful writers?

Amis authors, father & son at the right. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Getty Images

“One of the perks of being the son of a writer is not that you come automatically equipped to write novels, it’s that you don’t bother much about praise. Kingsley never bothered much about praise and dispraise. My stepmother did care. She was desperate for praise, and very much wanted it from me.” Thus Martin Amis in The Guardian. No doubt such insouciance can be passed on.

Abe Books brings us a list of ten examples of father-son writing continuity. Of course lots of people will write a book: and with self publishing now well established more of course than one could previously ever have imagined, but by writer don’t we want to mean more than just someone who writes? I think we imagine the term to imply “able to make a decent living by book writing”. Now I have no idea what monies Charles Dickens junior was able to pull down; it sounds like they were earnings rather than royalties. Alexandre Dumas Père et Fils leave everyone else in the dust in a listing of successful father and son authors. Some combination of the Waugh dynasty looks pretty good too, but notable inter-generational success is a bit of a rarity isn’t it? Not included on the list, Leslie Stephen/Virginia Wolff, and John Cheever/Susan Cheever would probably qualify. Anthony Trollope’s mother wrote novels which are not much read nowadays: three of them are available at Project Gutenberg. His brother Thomas wrote sixty books which seem to have quietly drifted into obscurity, though four do survive at Project Gutenberg. Trollope’s sister-in-law (Thomas’ second wife: the first had been a poet) was also a novelist: two of her books are also at Project Gutenberg. And her younger sister was Dickens senior’s mistress, keeping up the family’s literary activities.

Here’s the announcement of Joe Hill’s dad’s first big break.

This family seems to be as well established in the book-writing business as the Trollopes. Here’s Owen King writing at The Guardian about the difficulties of collaborating with Dad.

Of course following in your father’s profession is by no means unusual: many a weaver has sons who become weavers. My granddaughter is following in her Mum’s footsteps and studying medicine. And lots of children inherit the family business. Such succession is far from unusual: what’s rarer is the talent needed to make a success of the enterprise. Often the second or third generations who took on woolen mills in the Borders ran into difficulties. Of course business conditions had changed since patriarchal times, but there did appear to be a shortage of magic touch. My school-friend Charlie Stewart is a conspicuous exception. The Buddenbrooks trap all too often seems to catch us out. (Erika, Klaus, Golo and Monika, Thomas Mann’s children, were all successful writers however. I don’t mean to imply any aspersion here on the third generation: I know nothing of them.)

How many footballers have sons who grow up to be footballers? More I suspect than writers. Being familiar with the business helps, as well, I imagine, as being able to internalize at an early age that such a life is actually possible. Of course there is the problem of the very public inter-generational comparisons which you’d have to have the intestinal fortitude to put up with: is Kasper Schmeichel as good as his dad? Still I suppose that sort of intestinal fortitude would have to come with any form of celebrity: whether you are being compared with a family member or a stranger, you still risk an unpleasant shock.

Of course there is the concern that authors make terrible parents. The Walrus tackles this. Czeslaw Milosz said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” If you don’t want your quirks coming up for excoriation in some future novel, be sure to discourage writing in your offspring. The Walrus article quotes William Faulkner’s response when his daughter tried to intervene in his alcoholism: “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” Obviously a writing parent will need space and quiet to commune with the muse: rambunctious kids are doubtless about as incompatible with such a state as it’s possible to get. Maybe habits of silence predispose a child to internalization, reading, and mental story-telling preparing them for one kind of life only.

Interesting Literature has 10 of the Best Poems about Fathers. For fairness’ sake I point out that they link there to their previous post of poems about mothers.

Here for a little balance is a Lit Hub gallery of photos of authors with their mothers.






When I was* a runner I used from time to time to run over in my mind some lines of verse: the thump, thump of one’s footfall lends itself to the “Into the valley of death” sort of thing. My problem was not being very good at memorization, so I’d quickly run out of material. This Literary Hub piece, Counting feet: On running and poetic meter, is written more from the point of view of the running poet. If I’d been making up my own stuff as we bumped along, maybe I’d have been a more successful runner/reciter.

You can imagine getting along pretty well with W. B. Yeats’ words ringing in your ears:

As I came over Windy Gap
They threw a halfpenny into my cap.
For I am running to paradise. . .

This is one of fifty poems for running provided by PoemHunter. An audio version might be the ideal accompaniment for the runner. The audio which accompanies the poems is a bit too mechanical though.

Rhythm counts in both activities. Apparently marathon champions will dot along at something like 180 to 200 steps a minute. I flake out at 100, and doubtless would be happy to be managing 20 after 20 miles. I insist that I did always keep moving though. It’s desirable to maintain the same cadence so that you get into the habit. Bikers go on about cadence a lot too. It’s probably more straightforward for them: they can switch down a gear when they start going uphill. I suppose the spondee might be the target for most runners, but a constant diet of DUM-DUM will probably drive you mad. “We all know the sound of the iamb (dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM); its opposite, the trochee (DUM-dah) comes from the Greek trokhaios pous, or ‘running foot’. Trochees, known as ‘falling feet’, can move forwards with an urgent pace (‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night’).” My falling feet would rapidly lead to a state of falling runner, I fear.

For reciter-runners here’s advice from Matt Seidel at The Millions. The meter is obviously important. The writer comments “Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby” so he’s obviously got the puff to be reciting in quite a loud voice. He finds Burns and Blake get him going faster, but keeps Keats for long runs when he can take his “time with the great odes”. This guy obviously has a lot of poetry by heart, though he does confess to forgetting more and more as he progresses through middle age. I do like his thought that reciting the same poem again and again while running brings a fresh appreciation of its overall shape and rhythm.

The word cadence comes from the Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its etymology “< French cadence, < Italian cadenza ‘falling, cadence in music’, on Latin type cadentia , noun, < cadent- present participle of cadĕre to fall. The literal sense is ‘action or mode of falling, fall’, and in this sense it was used by 17th cent. writers; but at an early period the word was in Italian appropriated to the musical or rhythmical fall of the voice, and in this sense occurs as early as Chaucer.” This “action or mode of falling” can obviously be used of footfall as the feet hit the ground. Whatever the benefits of cadence when running, falling down is never a good idea.


* I am working towards a return after a partial knee replacement. Lots of bending and stretching going on. Cadence is out the window for now I fear, unless an irregular cadence can count.

© 2014 Dan Piraro, from

I always find it hard to deal with the output of OULIPO. It seems almost like crossword puzzles: fine to while away the time, but a good use of my reading time? Still people obviously more serious, creative, and intelligent than me have gone in for it, so I should just get on with it.

OULIPO, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, was founded in 1960 by mathematician François de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau. Its aim is to explore the possibilities of verse and prose written under a system of structural constraints. Lipogram is apparently one of their favorites. Others include snowball, Macao constraint, palindrome, and univocalism: Wikipedia lists them.

The Academy of American Poets gives a brief introduction, in which they allude to the OULIPO technique of N+7 wherein an already existing poem is recast substituting for each noun the noun seven places forward from it in the dictionary. Clearly different versions can be generated by using different dictionaries. At the bottom of this post is an example of what comes out if one uses the Oxford English Dictionary on a bit of Wordsworth. What is one to make of this? Not much I fear, and certainly not enough to make me want to repeat the experiment with Chambers’ or Webster’s New World. To me it seems utterly trite and boring. I suppose the juxtaposition of two American Indian tribes might be seen as “interesting”, but it all seems a waste of time. Maybe a real OULIPOist would reject this one and move on to another — original or dictionary.

When it comes to translating OULIPO works, what’s a translator to do? Not I think reach for the OULIPO translation techniques discussed in this paper by Harry Matthews from Electronic Book Review. He quotes this (to me just plain silly) example of seriously intended work: Marcel Benabou’s translation of “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” to “Ah, singe débotté, / Hisse un jouet fort et vert”. It’s just like “Mot d’heures gousse rames”. Translating “Ah, singe débotté . . .” into English is clearly futile. This sort of thing is a one-way street: though I wonder what a “translation” into German might turn out to sound like. Better leave such things to German OULIPOists. I guess each translator, faced with an N+7 work in French has to decide on whether to translate a noun seven places forward in their English dictionary from the translation of the French word used, or a translation of the exact word used by the author, or even, I suppose, to go back to the original word before its N+7 adjustment, translate it and move 7 nouns forward in their English dictionary. I suspect that such tortuous manipulation shows that OULIPO ought not be translated.

Nevertheless David Bellos has translated lots of Georges Perec’s work. He wonders whether any of the translations he’s made are stylistically not Perec, Kadare, whoever, but just examples of Bellos-style. Of course Perec, although a member of the group, didn’t have to write everything as an echt-OUPIPO-text, but his 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter “e”. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994) Wikipedia tells us.

In the end I think these OULIPO constraints are more fun to do than to read: like so much 20th century art, the real consumer is the bored artist.


My N+7 example:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
   Or let me die!
The Child is father to the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
My heaume leaps up when I behold
A raita in the slade:
So was it when my ligase began,
So is it now I am a Manahoac,
So be it when I shall grow old
    Or let me die!
The Chilkat is fatling to the Manahoac:
And I could wish my deaf-mutes to be
Bound each to each by natural piggin.

Nate Brown the managing editor of Short American Fiction provides a fairly long piece on the process of writing in such a way as to get your short story accepted. On the way he tells a tale of amazing persistence in submitting stories and getting back rejection notices. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, and again, and again, and again. His ten points:

  1.  Avoid adjective, adjective, noun constructions.
  2.  Reconsider beginning your story or chapter in dialogue.
  3.  Avoid filler phrases and empty words.
  4.  If you use ellipses, be aware of what they connote to readers.
  5.  No “trick” endings. Yes, this still happens, and, yes, it still mostly stinks.
  6.  Just as a story that’s too easy on a character can be too subtle to be engaging, a story that’s too hard on a character can fall flat.
  7.  Speaking of suffering, avoid using suffering, abused, or killed animals as objective correlatives.
  8.  Make your prose beautiful.
  9.  If you’re working with a character whose attitudes, actions, beliefs, decisions, morals, or politics are suspect, alienating, distancing, or noxious, treating them with some modicum of empathy will make them palatable to readers.
  10.  Err on the side of kindness rather than caricature when creating characters, and be thoughtful with dialectic speech.

This is a good article, emphasizing the pleasures of reading. Brown ends “My point here is this: our time is short, so write as best you can as often as you can. Write as beautifully as you can, then make it better. Write until you have to give it up, either because you know it’s done or because you don’t know what else to do with it. Then send it to a friend or send it to a magazine. Then wait and, while you wait, write something else. If you’ve gotten this far (in writing and in reading this essay), you already know it’s worth doing.”

(Link via Lit Hub Daily.)

£24,000 a year may not be riches beyond your wildest dreams, but as a starter salary for writers it’s not too shabby. De Montfort Literature, a new publisher, makes the offer to writers “who pass its selection process, which includes an algorithm that is ‘designed to identify career novelists’, psychometric tests and interviews.” The Guardian has the story about this offer. Ten lucky writers will get a job, and presumably be asked to buckle down to work right away. If De Montfort’s psychometric testing has any real basis in reality, this could work. At the very least, entering your name in the contest might be seen as a willingness to work.

Jonathan De Montfort says “I have taken what I know about hedge fund management and applied it to literature”, which may raise a frisson of concern among the generality of potential hires.

I imagine that the books written will be work made for hire. As such the copyright will be owned by De Montfort, so their offer to give their authors 50% of the profits is quite generous. They also offer to “share copyright with an author” which means whatever it may mean. Of course, definition of profit is always a bit variable. But all in all this seems like a good idea. Will there be performance reviews in a year or two, maybe even with the possibility of a pay raise or the sack?


Clearly Upwork is hoping that a frustrated author short of time but with money to spare (though not so much that they don’t still ride the New York City subway) is going to get off the L train at 3rd Avenue — and who am I to say that that’s never going to happen?

Of course, Upwork offers more services than just ghostwriting. One suspects that writing of any kind must be a bit of a minority profit center among their freelance offerings. But still, we can all endorse the message. Please get on with it George R. R.!

“A ghostwriter is a writer who is paid to write for someone else, under that person’s name. It is most commonly associated with publishing a book, but today it is also widely used in public relations, corporate communications, social media, and many other industries and fields that are producing greater and greater amounts of written content.” Thus Valerie Petersen at The balance. What after all is a speech writer?

There’s a whole lot of it going on, but naturally it doesn’t always go smoothly. Peter Carey was apparently invited to be the ghostwriter for fellow Australian Julian Assange’s autobiography, but turned the job down with the thought “Two control-freaks? It wouldn’t work.” In the event the collaboration between Assange and Andrew O’Hagan was fraught and broke down as The Guardian reports. O’Hagan says “the man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own. The story of his life mortified him and sent him scurrying for excuses. He didn’t want to do the book. He hadn’t from the beginning.”

Roz Morris offers to teach you how to get into ghostwriting. Her course is described on Jane Friedman’s blog. There’s a link there to Ms Morris’ more general paper on becoming a ghostwriter. MentalFloss has Nine Secrets of Ghostwriters, where we can learn that “ghostwriters can get paid anything between $15,000 and $150,000”. This may be true for James Patterson’s team, for instance, but I’ll bet there are lots who may get paid something less than that too!

Fiverr has scads of ghostwriters offering their services. How is one to judge? The border between editorial rewriting and ghostwriting is not a hard line. One will shade easily into the other. Maybe the difference boils down merely to the intention. If a publisher or author hires a ghostwriter they may give direction, but will be getting a first look at the manuscript once the ghostwriter has done the job. With an extensive rewrite, the editor/ghostwriter will be getting an already-written manuscript with the task of improving it. Like so much freelance work you get it because you are known to the person doing the hiring, and are known to be good at the sort of thing required.

It may come as a surprise to many of her readers, but Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew books was in fact a collaboration of dozens of different authors. Marissa Martinelli blows their cover at Slate. (Link via The Passive Voice.)


After the double flop of Moby-Dick and Pierre (1851 and 52) Herman Melville lived out his life in literary obscurity. When he died in 1891 The New York Times even referred to him as Henry Melville. He kept on writing though, and the results of his endeavors were carefully saved by his wife, tied up in bunches with pink ribbon, and stored in a metal breadbox which wasn’t really looked at till 1919. Lucky man; Billy Budd certainly didn’t harm his reputation. Many a widow or widower has sought to protect their deceased spouse’s reputation by destroying all that awful stuff they were always scribbling away at. The dead can only lie quietly and let what happens happen.

On the other hand, if authors request that their papers be destroyed after their death I think it’s pretty monstrous to disregard their wishes. In what way can it be right to overrule someone’s intentions when they are no longer around to discuss the subject with you? Who are you to decide that the poor old author didn’t know his/her own mind, and to decree that the survival of this archive is so important that instructions to a literary executor should be disregarded. Sure if we follow instruction we may thereby miss out on some really great book, but is our selfish wish-gratification enough to make it all right to disregard the author’s will? After all, nobody but the author can decide (while the author is alive) whether a book is ready to be published or not. You can argue with them about this, but the ultimate arbiter is the writer. Why should this change upon their death?

The Guardian has a piece by Blake Morrison, Up in smoke, about the question.

Kafka wrote to Max Brod from his deathbed “Everything that I leave behind in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters of my own and from others, sketches, etc . . . should be burned, completely and unread.” As we know Brod disregarded this instruction and as a result we can read The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, all of which remained unpublished upon the author’s death. Kafka presumably had his reasons. Maybe he thought there was more work to do on the writing before he was ready to release them. The Castle and Amerika are actually incomplete. While an incomplete or unfinished book may provide enjoyment and enlightenment, it is in a form which the author did not regard as final. Surely the author is allowed to have an opinion on what and what should not be published. To say “Well, he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about because if he’d really meant it he’d have burned the manuscripts himself before he got sick” is just post hoc rationalization, an attempt to make our dishonest act appear noble and public spirited. If Kafka, in giving this direction, knew that Brod, because of conversations they’d had, would disregard it, then that’s a pretty silly way of going about things. If you build a bonfire and throw all your property on it in the expectation that the fire brigade will turn up and save you from your stupidity, I think that you don’t deserve saving. But I think we have to assume Kafka was sincere and meant what he said, which means we should never have been able to read these books.

Lost books, however tantalizing they may seem, have the right to remain lost if that’s what the author wanted. There was a man who used to walk around Cambridge with a pile of papers always under his arm: it was rumored that he had left (and lost) his manuscript on the train to King’s Cross, and was spending the rest of his life trying to reconstruct it. T. E. Lawrence lost the manuscript for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom at Reading railway station and (obviously) was able to rewrite. The original manuscript for Ultramarine by Malcolm Lowry was stolen from his publisher’s car in 1932, and Lowry wrote it again. The first draft of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History was mistakenly used for kindling by John Stuart Mill’s maid. (Imagine breaking that bit of news to the author.) Carlyle sat down to rewrite from scratch. And who’s to know whether these rewritten versions weren’t actually better: revisions are almost always needed after all. How much easier life is nowadays: we just print off another copy from our computer.

Virgil asked that The Aeneid be destroyed, but the Emperor Augustus overruled his deathbed wish. Gogol burned his continuation of Dead Souls, and then proceeded to die. Gerard Manley Hopkins burned his early poetry — who are we to say he was wrong — we’ve none of us read it? Philip Larkin’s diaries were burned as per his directions after his death, though other personal papers were saved from the fire. Lots of poems by William Blake were burned after he died: and this is different. Doing it yourself or by your direction is one thing: having it done to you is a horse of a different color. Byron’s memoirs were adjudged by a group of three men to be likely to damage his reputation, and the manuscript was accordingly burned in the fireplace at John Murray’s offices — a fireplace which in my youth I was once privileged to gaze upon. Clearly our attitude towards whatever shocking revelation the manuscript contained are likely to be very different now than they were then, and not being able to read Byron’s thoughts about his life just because a bunch of moralistic Victorian gentlemen couldn’t restrain their blushes is a real loss.

Cambridge Core blog has a piece by Matthew Eddy of Durham University about the development of the school notebook, something we’ve all experienced as a prime site for perfecting the craft of doodling. Using a handsome example from Perth High School, he demonstrates that eighteenth century school notebooks were assembled sheet by sheet. A large sheet of paper was folded to make a four page section. No doubt few students took the ultimate step of having their notes bound up in book form, as someone has done with his example volume. I wonder if all students were as neat as this guy — I assume a male but Scotland was aways a liberal place in education policy, so it may have been a girl I suppose. This notebook’s survival may be down to its exceptional neatness.

I rather regret the loss of my old school notebooks, though what was written (and drawn) in them would probably make for pretty boring reading now, and was certainly nothing like as neat and tidy as the text Dr Eddy shows. But schoolboys (and schoolgirls) did write down a lot of stuff in bound (wire stitched) notebooks in those days. Most of my university stuff was on loose pages and was abandoned in an attic in Cambridge. I don’t think my notes and essays would have been much help to anyone who may have unearthed them in the subsequent half century. I observe my granddaughters referring to notebooks they’ve created: they look more formal than the ones I remember from my time, but clearly the notebook still thrives.

Erik Kwakkel tweets this picture of pages from a student’s notebook written by Heinrich von Weinfelden who was following a course of lectures by Peter Lombard in Vienna in 1399-1400. The full manuscript, from the University Library, Basel, can be found here. (The navigation arrows can be found above the image area on the left hand side.) It looks like Mr von Weinfelden must have written down almost every word. This surely must have been done after the event: it’s so tidy that one is tempted to believe it can’t have been done at the pace of the lecturer’s words. However there are marginal inserts, plus, as shown, a partial page which has been inserted later (?) which would suggest the main text being done live. Maybe lecturers talked slower back then, knowing that all students would be trying to transcribe their words. Always notorious are the good note takers: some undergraduates would not bother to turn up for lectures, knowing they could find out all about it from their assiduous friend. (Others just wouldn’t turn up at the lecture!) Maybe Mr von Weinfelden’s notes were funded by students with more money than energy, who’d just copy what he wrote into their own notebooks.

It is argued by some cognitive scientists that the use of hand and eye together to write things down improves our powers of memory. Certainly it’s the only way I can get close to memorizing a poem, but then of course the notebooks I grew up with weren’t powered by electricity, so hand-eye interaction was drilled into me at an early age. Tim Parks, at that same link, says he recommends to his students that they make a note in the margin of every page, something Bill Gates recommends too. I suspect that this linkage between hand, eye and memory is something we have inherited, even though the time since the origins of reading is perhaps rather short for evolutionary effects to have taken hold. I suppose we could lose this trait if notebook computers change the way we relate to the written word.