Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Music Review - Songs From the Heart, by Bernie Manning

In recent albums from this artist we have seen a shift in focus each time, and Songs From The Heart is no exception, with this album’s theme concentrating on the more personal aspects of life.

In this album we see the trademark Manning mix of soft, easy vocals, some spoken by Manning to a musical background, and others sung by long-time collaborator Bruce Haymes, whose light, soft voice works well with the gently contemplative tone of Manning’s lyrics.

The subject matter in this new compilation, though, has shifted from the externally focussed themes evident in the two previous albums, Heroes and Woodstock 2019, to the inner life of the self. In light of the five-song Prostate Cancer Blues Suite, one feels that this new direction may have been prompted by the author’s personal journey.

Following the suite, the album moves into a tone of gentle contemplation, with two tender love songs followed by the poignant melancholy of Best Friend and Nostalgia, and finishes as it began, on an upbeat note with the cheerful The Magpie.

Musically, the tracks deliver the same smooth rhythms we’ve come to expect from this artist, with the creative use of background sound that distinguishes his work. Traffic, voices, birdsong, weather effects, all are used as instruments in Manning’s compositions. In this album, the track Pain is of particular note; the harsh sounds that make up the track’s backing convey the idea of pain in a startlingly realistic way, beautifully reinforcing the theme of the lyrics.

A good choice for a long drive.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

My Big Fat Blog Tour. Part One - The Gathering of the Host

For years I've wondered about blog tours, but every time I thought about doing one, I came up against a solid wall of my own ignorance. Many and many a time I've asked author friends about them, but I never even understood the answers, I'd try to think about it and it would all slide over the surface of my mind without sinking in.

Today, I decided I'd finally crack it. I've got two books coming up, both related to each other - the second edition of Grammar Without Tears, and its companion volume, Fifty Shades of Grammar. I'll be documenting the process as I go, for your edification and entertainment.

The first thing, I think, is to get my hosts on board. I'm guessing I will need at least 10 to 12 stops on my tour, and really the more the better as the point is to promote my books. As to content, there seem to me to be three main possibilities with a stop on a blog tour. These are the interview, the guest post and the release announcement. With this in mind, I decided to start by getting a list of blogs that would host me with one of these things.

1 October

I posted on Facebook asking people to do this, and within a couple of hours I had four people offering to host me on six blogs. I think I need more than this, but it's early days yet. I set up an Excel spreadsheet - it wouldn't be me if there were no spreadsheet.

The columns in my spreadsheet are: Host (the name of the person), Blog (the name of the blog), Content (at present this holds the host's preference for those who have expressed a preference, but closer to the time I'll be filling in the blanks), and Date.

The plan is that once I've got a list of enough blogs, and a firmer release date, I'll fill in all the blanks so that I have a detailed plan of what is going where when, and this will drive any work I have to do to write guest posts, interviews and so on. My aim is to get the materials to my hosts at least a week before they need it, just as a small courtesy.

It occurs to me that my hosts may also have preferences about dates, so it's possible another column may be required, but I can add to the spreadsheet as things develop.

2 October

I've still only got 7 blogs for the tour, so I post in one of the Facebook Writers Groups - Australian Writers Rock!!!  

4 October

I now have eight blogs on my list, and I think this is enough for my first attempt at a blog tour. With this in place, the first step in my plan is complete. Next, I will be constructing the detailed plan, with dates, content required, and so on.

 The big new edition of GWT, with its companion volume Fifty Shades of Grammar,
 will be the subject of my blog tour. It is available from AMAZON in paperback only; the ebook is the tiny first edition.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Marriage Equality, a step on the road to a just society

Today's blog isn't going to be about writing. Or is it? Tathagata Buddha said, 'with our thoughts, we make the world'. The writer's task, au fond, is to create worlds with our words, and in the process, we may sometimes cause a small shift in this world we inhabit. It has been said, often enough that one almost cringes when hearing it yet again, that the pen is mightier than the sword, and this is true in the sense that it is in the written word that nearly all thinking is communicated. All matters, therefore, are the proper business of the writer.

This being the case, today I am going to talk about Marriage Equality.

In 1955 Mrs Rosa Parks, 'tired of giving in', declined to yield her seat to a 'white' passenger. Ever since, we've been on the road towards civilisation. The road has at times been bumpy, and there may have been switchbacks and setbacks, but overall the trend has been upwards, although at a very slow pace. Nowadays, although racism is still very much a thing, it's at least recognised, and most people accept that it is a problem, and it's visible. There has been progress in other areas, too. The gay people are pretty well all out of the closet, at least if they want to be, which is a thing we could never have dreamed of when I was a girl. And now, they are asking for their rights; specifically, the right to marry the people of their choice, a right so basic that it is never even questioned.

What, some of you may ask, has this to do with me? Am I gay? Well that's as may be. Those of you who know me will be able to answer that, but I refuse to accept that my own sexuality has any bearing at all on the position I will take with regard to marriage equality. For me, the question is not one of can this person marry that person, but of whether we are going to have a just society, in which every citizen has the same rights as every other citizen, and there are not 'second-class seats'. Once the struggle of one's early years is past, when we know we will never starve, when we are assured of our basic needs, we may see that a better world to leave one's children is one of the highest goals to which we can aspire, and the question of whether one personally benefits in the sense of having more money because of a tax change must take second place for any thinking person.

In a sense, we are all that gay man who may not have his marriage recognised in our country. No man is an island, says Donne, and goes on to add 'every man's death diminishes me'. The fundamental truth of these words is something that few would contest, and today's shameful 'debate' ought to be seen in their light, and in that of the natural inference that every man's suffering also diminishes us. 

As well as the victims of an unjust law, though, we must also identify with the perpetrators. We are all shamed by a government that discriminates against this one and that one, that is corrupt, that condemns children to life in torture camps, and so on. We are all personally shamed when people must sleep in shop doorways and beg for their food. We are all the problem, because our government is an elected government, and there is no chanting the childish mantra of 'not my president', as one sees Americans doing. Because we let them do it.

That is why I voted YES in the questionnaire, and why every thinking, honest Australian ought to do the same.

This short story is my dystopic vision
 of where our current government wants to lead us.
It's free at the moment. Get your copy HERE

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Promotional copies - they don't have to cost anything!

So often when I've been asked to review someone's book, the author has 'gifted' me a copy on Amazon. Not that I mind that, of course, but it always makes me a little sad to see a hard-working, underpaid independent author spending his money to get a review that may not even turn out to be any good. Those dollars, I always feel, could have been better spent. Not because it isn't important to get reviews - I do believe it's very important - but because it doesn't have to cost you anything.

If the book is traditionally published, of course, this is not relevant. In that case, it would be the publisher sending out a review copy, and that's another matter entirely. But mostly when I get these copies gifted through Amazon, the author is a self-published indie. Trad publishers are more likely to send a paperback through the post, at least in my experience. 

But it is with the independent author that this blog is chiefly concerned, because we are the ones who have to do it all for ourselves. And if you aren't making very much money from your books, as is sadly the case with most of us, you do not want to spend money unnecessarily. Save that money for things that you can't get for nothing: a good editor, for instance, and perhaps cover design.

Because I've encountered this situation dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of times, today I'm going to lay out, step by step, how an independent author published through KDP can get unlimited review copies to send out, for absolutely no cost. 

So, here goes.

Open your KDP account and find your book. I'm going to illustrate this by getting a copy of my little book, Grammar Without Tears, but the process is exactly the same for any book. I've chosen this one because the big new second edition is in the process of being got ready for publication, but the method I am going to show you works just the same whether the book is published or not.

Here are both editions of GWT on my KDP page.
I can use the same process to download a free copy of either one.
Go into your book. If you want the draft one, the button says CONTINUE SETUP, but the result will be the same in either case. You may wish to use the process for advance review copies, to get some reviews up prior to your release date. For this example, I have chosen the live version.

Mouse over the little box with three dots, to the right of the book, and when the list pops up, click on Edit eBook Content.

See the list that pops up when you mouse over the box with the three little dots.
The selection you want is Edit eBook Content.

Now the next thing that always happens to me is that it diverts me to the sign-in screen, because I haven't signed in first, or it's expired, or something, so don't panic if this happens to you. You do not have to start the entire process again. Just enter your password and continue, and it will still go to the right place.

This is the second page of the book, the page that deals with content.
Now, because these pages are huge, I can't show the entire thing in my screenprint, and the entire thing won't display on your screen either. You now need to scroll down to find the bit you want- the Kindle Book Preview section.

See on the left where it says 'Kindle eBook Preview'.
This is the section you want.


Select 'Preview on your computer' from the options. This will make some additional text pop up. Don't worry about the downloadable previewer just now; it's irrelevant for our purpose. You want to click on MOBI, in Step 2. It is the Mobi file that is the object of the whole exercise. 


You will get a little download window, and this is where you choose where to save your file. Once the download is complete, this is a usable ebook that you can send to as many people as you like.


Now that you've got your free copy, which you can send out as many times as you like, it's worth considering other formats. The mobi, like the azw and azw3, requires a Kindle device or emulator. But if you're after a lot of reviews, you may want to cast your net wider. Lots of people read on a Kobo or other e-reader, and those use the epub format.

You can easily convert your mobi file to an epub, pdf or other format using Calibre. It's free, open-source software, and I highly recommend it. You can also tweak the metadata, change the cover, and all kinds of things, but the primary use in this context is to convert formats. It's fairly easy to use, and unlike many products, it has really good technical support, provided by the product's creator, Kovid Goyal.

You can download the software HERE.

The vastly expanded second edition will be coming out later this year,
along with a companion volume. Meanwhile, you can get the first edition HERE.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Snowflake Effect

The world has moved on, as Roland would say. So much has changed over my life. Most of the things that used to enrage me as a child are no longer a thing. We've gone to the moon. We have smartphones and ebooks and we're all in touch with people all over the world, pretty well all the time unless we take steps to limit our access. Gay people are out of the closet and demanding equal rights, and racism, although still prevalent, is at least something that doesn't quietly slip under the radar.

Nowhere, though, are the changes more fundamental than in the way we deal with one another. This is particularly noticeable in situations where we encounter something we don't like. Once upon a time, if we saw something of which we disapproved, we used to 'walk on by'. Perhaps we'd have a discreet little chunter to our friends, but by and large we tended just to look away when confronted with something we thought was in poor taste, or even morally reprehensible.

Nowadays, however, a common response is to go on the warpath instead. Don't like someone's outfit that you see in the street? Take a picture on your phone, upload it and shame him on social media. Disagree with something a person said in a comment? Why not spend a couple of hours insulting him and inciting your friends to attack him, too. The more the merrier! Yes, let's have a mob by all means! See someone with his dog offlead in a place that isn't a designated offlead area? Follow him and find out who he is and report him to the council. See someone at the train station in a fur coat and you disapprove of wearing fur? Yell at her until you've reduced her to tears. It's your right!

This combative instinct isn't limited to seeing unpleasant sights, either. Did someone ask you to call your dog away when it was jumping all over him in the park/ attacking his dog/ spoiling his picnic/ giving him an allergy attack? Never mind complying with the polite request. Instead, follow him around screaming abuse until he gives up and leaves. Did someone ask you to keep the noise down in the library? Harass him until he gives up and leaves. Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. In fact, I'm speaking from personal experience. Many personal experiences, some that have happened to me, and many more that I've witnessed happening to other people.

It isn't always an aggressive frontal attack, of course. Much of the attacking I see done nowadays is of the whining variety. Oh, poor me, I saw something nasty. Boo Hoo. It's meant to enlist sympathy from bystanders, so that hopefully everyone will hate your target. This is what I call the Snowflake Effect.


Another thing is that now we have 'triggers'. All kinds of people are claiming to be 'triggered' by all kinds of things, even things as trivial as a funny meme. Now, if you see something nasty in the woodshed, you aren't just offended or disgusted on your own turf. It's become normal to accost people and rant at them in the street or on the internet. We are, it seems, no longer tough enough to survive encountering something unpleasant in our day.

This idea of the 'trigger', borrowed from the language of psychology, has spread far and wide, and Amazon is full of books carrying 'trigger warnings'. Members of writers' groups solemnly discuss the need for such warnings, and I've even seen trigger warnings placed at the head of Facebook posts.

What is a trigger, really? It's an event that causes a powerful recall of a traumatic event in a person's past, when that person suffers from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), a serious and debilitating psychological illness. Typically, this will result in an event called a flashback, where the patient experiences a recall of his traumatic memory that is very immediate and consuming, sometimes to the point where the person experiences himself back in the time of the traumatic events.

This is really nasty stuff. Really, really nasty. It is most commonly experienced by combat veterans and people who've gone through experiences so appalling and frightful that they are mentally scarred by it, to the extent where they have a diagnosed mental disorder. It's a serious psychological event that causes horrible suffering, and perhaps horrible behaviour as a result.

So-called 'triggers' are mostly bullshit.

My point here is that PTSD is a real illness and a very serious one that causes untold suffering, and it is in my view grossly disrespectful to its victims to appropriate the clinical language of the disease to describe the petulance of a spoilt, entitled person when seeing something he dislikes, or with which he disagrees.

Where To Draw The Line?

So where should we draw the line, when deciding whether getting involved is warranted? Personally, I think the law of the land is a good guide. Is the thing you've seen illegal? Then, depending on its severity, you may want to call police, or even intervene directly where the matter is urgent (e.g. an assault in progress).

Where it's not a matter of illegality but of offending some other set of norms (religious, moral, good taste, whatever), I think a good rule of thumb is whether you or someone else are actually being harmed. Actually. Not in your opinion, or according to your personal moral code, or anything else subjective, but right here, right now, someone is suffering actual damage. Those cases are fairly rare.

Being Offended Is Not A Head of Damage

Being offended by something, believe it or not, does not give you rights over the offender. You do not have the right to demand that others live according to your standards. Myself, I'm offended by a lot of things. Heaps and heaps. I can hardly get through a day without seeing something I consider offensive. Facial hair on women. Dreadlocks. 'Lay' used intransitively. Speedos. Little birds in cages. Pornography being marketed as 'erotic romance'. Americans grabbing their left tits when they hear their national anthem. The word 'tasty'. There's no end to it. And you know what? Almost always, I just shut my mouth, because at the end of the day it is none of my business what other people do. Well, okay, I usually do say something about intransitive 'lay'. But that's not because I'm on the moral high ground. It's more that I can't help myself.

Far be it from me to suggest that my own conduct should be viewed as any sort of universal guide. But really, haven't we gone a little too far down the path of entitlement? A right can only exist in the presence of its corresponding duty; my right not to be punched in the nose is the flip side of your duty not to punch me in the nose. They're not even corresponding, linked things - they're the same thing. Where there is no duty, there can be no right. And therefore, if it's not my duty to refrain from saying anything that someone, somewhere might not like, it's equally not your right to demand that I (or anyone else) do so. Because, after all, we're not two years old.

In Gift of Continence, a woman plots to kill her unfaithful husband.
 This is just the kind of over-the-top reaction that should be avoided in life.
Get it at AMAZON

Monday, 18 September 2017

On Labelling

In his marvellous book, A Fair Dinkum Pain in the Neck, author Peter Henri relates an argument with a hospital doctor. With his permission, I'll quote the section here:

While I was working at the hospital I went to the ear nose and throat department for another check-up, or down as the case may be. I was seen by a visiting doctor from the ENT at Royal Adelaide. I hadn’t met him before, and when I arrived in his room I was still wearing my hospital identity badge. He had my file in his hand, and by way of greeting he said, “Ah Mr Henri, I see you’re a laryngectomee.”
I said, “No I’m not.”
He looked confused, obviously reading my name badge and checking the file at the same time.
“It says here that you had a laryngectomy in August 2001.”
“That’s right. I’m Peter, not Mr Henri, and I had a laryngectomy in August 2001.”
Now he looked even more confused, and I’m sure he probably thought that he had just met a Territorian who had ‘gone troppo’ or had developed ‘mango madness’ as we are wont to do up here in the Top End.
“And if I had an arm amputated I wouldn’t be an amputee. I would be Peter who had his arm amputated. You see, doctor, I don’t identify as being a thing, a laryngectomee, or any other ‘ee’. Nor do I identify as a cancer victim. I was afflicted by cancer, or got cancer.” 

Who has not seen someone who is, or who has a friend or relative, on the Autism Spectrum, making the point that those people should be referred to, not as 'autistics', but as people who have autism? The issue isn't particular to autism, either, by the way.

This is not a situation peculiar to a particular person, or to hospitals, or to any particular conditoin or industry. It is a general issue, and the issue is one of courtesy. The reason for this is that this kind of discourtesy is labelling.

Let's take a look at what we are doing when we say to someone, 'you're a xxxxxx'. By using a noun to describe a person, we are assigning him to a category. Even if it's a compliment, there's a shade of arrogance to that. We are implicitly saying that it is for us to define what that person is, a thing we have no right to do. 

This is why it goes to courtesy; by arrogating to ourselves the right to define a person, we have implicitly placed ourselves above him. And that's rude as hell.

What To Do About It

The whole problem can easily be made to disappear. There are two possible ways. 

One way is to examine whether the remark was even appropriate. There are many situations where the whole thing would be just better unsaid. For example, if it's a comment you're making about a person's physical appearance. These are generally better avoided. Whatever it is you want to say, the person has almost certainly heard it a million times, it is not going to be news to him, and unless you know him very well, it's intrusive. Commenting about a person's body is just the first step on a path that leads to touching him.

If it is still something that needs to be said, there is an easy fix: it is to use a verb instead of a noun. Not 'he is autistic', but 'he has autism'. I am using autism for my example because that's the context in which I most often see people complaining about labelling, but this method has quite general application. For example, not 'he is an animal lover', but 'he loves animals'. Of course, statements like this are unlikely to give offense, at least not consciously, but as courtesy is so often a matter of unconscious habit, it does no harm to err on the side of strictness.

Labelling Enables Bigotry

A huge benefit of forcing yourself into this more verbal approach is that it can support your effort to behave well in other ways. A great example of this is racism.

Why is it so, you ask. Let's try an experiment. Pick a person, any person. Try to make a racist remark about that person, without first saying, or at least thinking, something like 'he is a (insert noun). I'll be surprised if you can do it, very surprised indeed.

It is the very act of labelling that enables bigoted thinking. For this reason, if for no other, it is a habit we all do well to overcome.

Try my new short story, Uncle Zan's Dog.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Cast of Thousands Need Not Apply

Vampires. Werewolves. Witches. Zombies. Elves. Goblins. Fairies. Elder Gods. Practically every fantasy novel one pick up these days appears to have a cast of thousands, that makes Tolkien's five sentient species look positively stingy.

Sometimes I imagine conversations between these writers.

"Oh, Mary's book isn't going to be any good. She hasn't even got vampires!"
"I hear Fred's new one has Silkies and a Pooka as well as dragons, griffins and elves."
A brief hush follows, as a roomful of writers scribble notes to look up what a Pooka is and add it to their Gothic Christian Steampunk Transgender Erotic Romance Fantasy Epics. Or whatever.

This mania for having one of everything has, I suspect, in the ancient art of 'Keeping Up With The Joneses.' "Oh," one imagines them saying to themselves. "Joe's got zombies AND cyberpunk." And off they rush to add some zombies to their mediaeval quest fantasy.

Don't even let me get started on how overworked is the mediaeval quest fantasy. It's a truism in the writing world that whenever something really good and original is published, at least a decade will follow where hundreds of people produce poor copies of it. As far as I can see, this applies to just about every genre except literary fiction. That one's too hard for copyists.

Is this overabundance of fantasy species in modern fantasy literature a bad thing? Yes, I have to say I think it is. It's not so much that extra species are a bad thing per se, but more that the wholesale inclusion of everything under the sun signals a lack of restraint. Further, there is something intrinsically comical about the 'cast of thousands' approach. Who can even hear the words 'cast of thousands' without a tiny snigger? And unless your book is actually meant to be funny, that really isn't the response you're looking for from your readers.

About now, I can hear my reader thinking, "But what about Terry Pratchett?" Although I never accept the appeal to authority as any kind of valid argument, his books are so lovely, and so very successful (in the literary, not in the commercial, sense) that the existence of the Discworld, with its dwarves gnomes gargoyles vampires werewolves dragons et alia, may be seen as adding weight to the contra position.

I don't think this is so. Pratchett's work is deeply satirical, and he does not just make fun of policemen, movie producers, dog breeders or whatever aspect of society he's chosen for his particular target in any given book. He is, all the time, making fun of himself and all the other fantasy writers. He mocks us all, and we love him for it. 

My own approach is different. If I write fantasy, I like to keep the fantastic element to an absolute minimum - no more than is needed for the story to work. Some people have unkindly referred to this as 'diet fantasy.' I will defend this approach with my last breath, though. To me, it's a matter of fixed principle that you should use no more of anything than is required for the story to work. And that applies to sentient species, just as it does to sex, to violence, to descriptions or anything else. 

No story needs more
than one dancing zombie cockroach.
Danse Macabre