Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Incredible Collapsing Man (meets Lee McGowan)

It's not often I fall in a heap with shock. It's even less frequently I'm left speechless (och, weesht - ye know Ah like tae gab). Today, both of the above happened. See, I've just checked the Tuesday night football scores, and I'm going to have to take back everything I've ever said about my beloved St Johnstone.

How timely for an example to appear right now: see, in years gone by I would have interjected there that the club's full name is actually St Johnstone-Nil.

I've suffered long and hard at their hands over the years. Every die-hard Saints fan has. But, lo! Lo and behold! St Johnstone 4 Rangers 1

I said St Johnstone 4 Rangers 1

Good God - the world's buggered. Someone restore some order again soon, I beg you.

Speaking about football, a great new writer by the name of Lee McGowan - a fine Scotralian, just like me, who's just as mad on the beautiful game - will be reading his work in the meeting room of the Brisbane Central Library on Saturday 10 April, starting at 3pm. For more details go here

I'm going to try to pop along, and I'm sure Lee and everyone else on stage will make everyone very welcome.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Quick Pic

Strelizia. Yesterday. 4pm. Enjoy (the ants sure are!) :-)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


In the interests of getting the balance of this blog just right (‘...all things Scottish, all things Australian and all things literary...) I’d like to talk today about something related to ‘writing’, and there’s nowhere better to start than at the beginning of the writing process.

Choosing the tense you use to craft your essay, poem, narrative prose, etc is one of the biggest decisions a writer has to make. It’s also one of the first. Get it wrong and your piece can fall flat. Worse, you could turn readers off your writing for good. But if you get it right, you can add tension, win reader empathy and really make your work stand out from the crowd.

Let me start by clarifying what I mean by the word ‘tense’. Tense is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as ‘a set of forms of a verb that indicate the time or completeness of the action expressed by the verb.’

Take the simple verb, ‘walk’. I
walked to my office this morning. I like walking in the morning. I’ll walk again just as soon as I’ve finished this piece - to the coffee pot, perhaps.

Those are the three tenses: past (I walked); present (I like walking); future (I’ll walk).

Choosing the most appropriate tense for the article you’re writing is crucial. Although you can write in one tense and edit for another at some later stage, that kind of edit can be huge and almost always involves a complete rethink followed by a complete rewrite followed by divorce and litigation. Making the right decision early on saves that rework (and all those ugly legal fees).

The question is, which tense is right for your project? Well, that depends entirely on what you’re writing.

Let’s look at narrative prose. As an example, I’ll use the opening sentence of my crime thriller Brogan’s Crossing to illustrate the obvious differences between tenses. (Forget viewpoint at this stage – I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

Sam Brogan let the doors swing shut and flicked a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole as he limped into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

The handling of the verbs ‘flick’ and ‘limp’ are the clues that this is written in past tense. Past is the writers’ favourite and almost always works best for fiction. If you consider that most stories are told after the event, it makes sense to relate those stories in the past tense. Brogan’s story unfolds as we read, and there’s a certain feeling of comfort and security that comes from knowing that these events have already happened. It’s a safe bet, too, because many publishers prefer novels written in this tense.

But I could have written it differently, using present tense, for example.

Sam Brogan lets the doors swing shut and flicks a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole as he limps into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

Straight away you can see there’s much more immediacy, and more intimacy between the reader and the character. We’re with Sam as things happen to him, and that often works well for action-based fiction.

So, why didn’t I choose this tense to write Brogan’s Crossing? There are a few reasons, but it really comes down to wanting this story to have as much credibility as possible. Many readers, when confronted with present tense narration, find it difficult to ignore the fact that a character is relating story when he/she should be minding events as they unfold.

Now let's look at future tense.

He’ll let the doors swing shut and flick a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole, then limp into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

This mode of writing can certainly make your work stand out from the crowd, mainly because not many writers use it. But be warned: it takes a great deal of skill to master future tense, and a great deal of discipline to stay focused. You may also be limiting your audience because it reads so differently from the norm.

That’s a quick and relatively simple overview of the differences between the three tenses, (with an absolute body swerve around the topic of pluperfects, past progressives and past perfect progressives. Maybe, one day...)

Past and present are more commonly used than future. It’s not illegal to mix past, present and future together, as long as you do it consistently and with care (e.g. when combining past tense action with present or future tense interior monologue – ‘She sat and watched him drink another beer. I’ll show him, she thought. One day I’ll teach him, and he’ll never talk to me like that again.’)

Choosing the right tense can be a tough decision for a writer to make, often because it’s made in conjunction with a decision concerning point of view. And viewpoint is the next subject I’ll tackle.

For now, though, I’m about to walk to the coffee pot.

Update 20100319 -

Remember I said you could turn readers off your writing for good if you pick the wrong tense? Well, here's an example of what I mean, from a newspaper I was reading this morning:

'Once Ului crossed the coast, it was forecast to weaken quickly into a rain depression.'

The reporter is telling us about an event which is yet to happen, but has incorrectly chosen to use the past tense ('crossed the coast' and 'was forecast'). If you're talking about events that might come to pass at some future date, use future tense.

'Once Ului crosses the coast, it is forecast to weaken quickly into a rain depression.'

See the difference? Readers instinctively know that what you're talking about is yet to happen. And that means you've achieved clarity in your writing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I went out shopping the other day, and as I was driving into the car park of one of Queensland’s biggest malls, I rounded a corner and found my path blocked by a couple of young lads and their spangly cars, boom boxes ... booming, paint jobs of orange and purple flames, strobe strips flashing away on the dashboards impatient for Saturday night. They were going at it hammer and tongs: shaking fists, shouting insults, each claiming that last available parking space for himself – and I couldn’t help quipping to Princess Spendalot, ‘They remind me of me when I was young and stupid.’

Of course, the memory flood gates opened, and even as I manoeuvered our behemoth around the tacky obstruction and headed to the next level (I’m happy to report that neither of the Stupids was adorned with those Carlos Fandango flared trousers I used to wear) I’d started my journey and was travelling back to the Eighties at an alarming speed.

Welcome aboard the Moronic Express, stopping only at Young, Stupid and Idiotsville.

The human mind’s a mystery to me, so I won’t try to analyse why or how I ended up at The Night of the Pistachios, but there I was, eighteen years old and walking into my first wine bar in Perth city centre, pockets stuffed with pound notes and condoms and my new-found sophistication tripping me.

I wasn’t alone. Dick, my best mate at the time, was with me – he’d recommended the place because his father had taken him there the week before to celebrate his eighteenth birthday – and I naturally followed his lead, up the disinfected marble stairs and through the wide glass doors. The carpet was plush, the seats red velvet, and the intimately-lit bar had that look of sanctuary about it that draws in the unwary.

We moseyed on up to the penguin who was busily polishing his wine glasses, eyeing the elegantly dressed table of beauties to our right and trying our best to broaden our shoulders that crucial few millimetres. I, at least, had the required amount of designer stubble, but Dick hadn’t quite started shaving and could best be described as fluffy... But that worked in my favour, right? I mean, girls prefer that manly, semi-rough appearance over the ‘Mum says I have to be home by ten’ look, right?

No matter.

We reached the bar. We leaned. We ordered sophisticated cocktails. We leaned some more, nodded knowingly to each other, eyed the girls, turned and sipped our drinks, eyed the girls again, smiled and I (forgive me, I was a novice – if I’d been in my car I probably would have hooted my horn like the stupid prick I am) winked at the least frowny one, sitting pretty in red, hair piled high and curly (the eighties, remember), shoulder pads to rival mine.

She smiled in response and I leaned back so far I would have toppled over if my shoes hadn’t been so heavy with polish. I couldn’t think of anything I could do that would make me look more cool, more ‘sophisticated’, more worthy of her flirtations – until Dick suggested I help myself to some of the weird-looking complimentary nuts from the bar.

‘Never tried them, but I’m game for anything,’ I said, gazing at my Lady in Red and grabbing a handful from the bowl. With the dexterity and confidence of a Starsky or a Hutch, or a Doyle or a Bodie, I chucked a few of these new nibbles into my mouth and crunched down, chewing and crunching, crunching and crunching and crunching.

And the more I crunched, the more that red goddess and her hench-goddesses laughed.

Pfft. Pistachios my backside.
But, like all semi-intelligent creatures, I learned from my experiences that evening. I learned PDQ where the rest rooms were, thanks to all that crunching. I learned that some cocktails pack a punch like Ali. I learned that one red wine tastes pretty much the same as any other after three or four bottles. And I learned that dentists are worth every penny they fleece from us. Fleece on, dear dentists, fleece on!

But the biggest thing I learned that night is that it’s just plain lazy to serve those bloody nuts in their shells.

Pic courtesy of AllenS.