15 April 2012

On narrative quirks

As much as I enjoy the telling of a story, especially through copious use of dialogue and characters' internal monologue, I have a personal peeve about using sentence fragments in the narrative of a novel.  I fear it looks amateurish-- having seen plenty of eighth-year writing like that-- and believe that a narrative should stand as universal, as the one constant of the story, and as such it should be respectably and even formally presented.

Now I know there are exceptions of this rule.  One is when the narrative style is set up from the start to be a kind of internal monologue by a character.  This character does not have to be one in the story; the narrator, even a detached third-person one, can be a kind of character for the telling of the story.  Even Jonathan Swift, that proponent of a strict 'language police', has done this and with good effect.

Another exception, of course, is when the narrator is an active character in the book, such as in my own Deirdre series and in countless other works.  In such examples the narrator's discussion style can either make or break the whole story.  (I will boast that the one consistent observation of especially female readers is about how 'right' I seem to have got the heroine's thought processes.  So, it works.)  But a narrator with charisma and, even more important, something of merit to say, will win over the readership every time.

A very personable narrator, even a detached one, can be effected by the use of narrative and even grammatical devices. In Deirdre the first-person narrator is essentially articulate and perhaps of above-average education for her age, and she does use some fragments but certainly not to any excess. The story is about events and information, not about her personal reactions to what happens (those come through in her actions and words themselves) and so frags like 'Maybe not.' and 'In my face.' do not occur as a rule.

In dialogue the matter is quite different.  Few people speak habitually in absolutely-correct SWEE (Standard Written and Edited English)  and the use of fragments, unfinished thoughts, interjections such as 'um' and 'uh', verbal quirks and other shortcomings in usage and grammar can be very deftly used to reinforce the uniqueness of the characters.  But the rule here must be one of consistency.  Many writers make the error of making all their characters talk the same way, with the same (the author's, usually) idiom, grammar and vocabulary.  Keeping character's speech patterns distinctive can also help in eliminating the too frequent repetitions of 'he said' and 'she said', as the separate speaking styles of the characters will differentiate them from each other.

Sadly, as with dialogue, it is all too easy for an author to fall into his own verbal style when writing the narrative.  It's too easily overlooked or taken for granted; and the all-too-common post-romantic self-focus deludes many writers into believing that how they use the language as individuals is how best to communicate a novel's story to the world at large.  This is akin to constructing a house with poor foundation and framework-- no matter how prettily you dress it up inside and out, and no matter how workable the form and function of the design, no-one will be able to long ignore the inadequacies of the fundamental structure because they will affect every other part of the visit.

I believe the story should have its own 'character', sort of like I said above.  The whole 'feel' and 'mood' of a novel comes across by how the narrative is presented.  For my part I choose to hold the narrative itself somewhat elevated from the dialogue, insisting on SWEE as well as it can be done.  One of my projects (still long in the future) is a series of 1740s novels of manners in which the narrative is given in 20th/21st-C English, to ensure accessibility to modern readers, but lines of dialogue appear in the mid-18th-C English of Johnson, both to be historically accurate and to illuminate readers as to how people really talked then.  This is almost the opposite of what I did in a book like Love Me Do, in which the narrative is in the same reliable Queen's English but the dialogue appears very much in 1970s middle-class American vernacular.

Of course there are as many approaches to narrative as there are authors.  For what I write, I do not have value for too conversational a style.  I view a novel as much more sacrosanct than that; and, for most novel-length endeavours, writing like a comprehensive-school eighth-year with slang, jargon, abbreviations and numerals, phonetic spelling, grammatical imperfections and sentence fragments will not do.  This is not just an academic point to be read and disregarded over time.  I would make the entirely unequivocal submission that in such inadequate writing the whole point of the story itself can become lost.  And, if anything, the prime directive of all writing should be to not irritate and disinterest an otherwise eager reader through an  author's misuse of the language.  After all, an author is writing to be read and to be published; and to have his work to die a premature death due to poor editing and preparation with regard to basic grammar and usage has got to be the worst way to go. --and the most easily avoided.

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08 April 2012

Jonnie Comet on writing & novels

from a PR flyer, 12 September 2011--

Who, or what, is a Jonnie Comet?

One of my professors once asked me this, seeing it on some piece of text, and even some of my students have been stumped by it, which I suppose was part of the intention. Actually the name was a suggestion by my brother Rino for the name of a new band in 1978 or 1979. I thought it sounded too 1950s and rejected it out of hand.

Sometime after that I altered the spelling to appear androgynous and created an on-stage persona, some cross between Luke Skywalker and Robin Hood, a naïve though effective futuristic do-gooder featured in the songs of the Archer In The Wood and Shoot For The Stars LP projects.  By the end of the 1980s I had gone to work for corporate America and made something of a name for myself in a very specific industry; and so, when it came time to hawk Love Me Do to publishers, I chose to retain my old band’s name as a nom de plume to keep the two career paths from converging.   In each discrete circle, in order to maintain the separation, I do not mention the other name except, if it comes up, as a third-person entity.

When did you first become interested in writing?

As a child I read copiously, early and well-- in kindergarten the teacher used to have me bring in books, sit me on a table and have me read to the class since no-one else could read at kindergarten in those days. I was two or three reading levels ahead by the time I started 7th year. In critical-writing assignments I was an original voice that most teachers didn’t know what to do with. If they were mere pedants they would nitpick my grammar and spelling; if they had any sort of vision as educators they got used to just giving me an A if it had my name on top of it.

The earliest original story I can remember writing was in 5th year when a friend suckered me into doing a standup comedy routine for the class (not for an assignment, but just because) and gave me the job of writing copy for a mock news report (like a 5th-year version of SNL’s ‘Weekend Update’!). By the time I was 15 I was into the habit of writing down really cool dreams I had; one of them actually became the core of Love Me Do.

What did you do before writing novels?

I have written fiction with the aim of developing novels since I was about 15. But throughout my adult life I really have worked as a draughtsman, a liquor salesman, a boatbuilder, a delivery skipper, a private tutor, a warehouseman, a janitor, a carpenter, a skateboard assembler, a surfboard shaper, a purchasing agent, a designer of yacht hardware, a bookshop clerk, a teacher of secondary English, and of course as a working songwriter, producer and musician with a variety of outfits before and after The Jonnie Comet Band in the early 1980s.

What experiences have you had that you believe contribute to your voice as a writer?

At the age of 19 I found myself dispensing advice to younger friends (who were mostly girls, essentially groupies of the band) in Surf City. I cannot say that I had any more knowledge than they did about their personal social-life matters; but they trusted me enough to consult me with them and I did my best to rely on common sense, moral propriety and good will in helping them through them. The experience taught me two things: that I cared about people, especially young and impressionable ones, and that I had some skill as a communicator of concepts and ideals.

This sensitivity for the whole prospect of being a teenager was further nurtured when I began teaching secondary school and discovered I had students who often took me into their confidence with issues they would not mention to their own parents. They trusted in my guidance because they already knew for sure that I was a staunchly moral adult who knew how to listen and truly cared. I have always regarded their faith in me as a sort of sacred trust and a very high honour; and I like to believe I have been of great comfort to them all.

I realised that the reason I wanted to teach school was the same as the reason I wanted to be a rock-and-roll star: because I believed I had a message of honesty, decency and unconditional love to convey to other people. If I did not make much money in this pursuit, I did gain some peace of mind that having followed a course of virtue I may have helped people be happier and healthier along the way.

Aside from my worldly experiences in work and play I think this getting to know myself and what made me tick as a person is the crucial key to the relevance and uniqueness of Jonnie Comet’s voice as a writer.

What do you think is the most important feature of any novel?

All good stories are about characters. The definition of a ‘character’ can be very broad; good books have been written about animals (The Bear), computers (2001), or places (Ringworld). But what we look for is the development of some entity with whom we can feel empathy. Even when stories are inherently plot-driven, such as those Clancy writes, there are still people within them to be affected by, and to affect, the course of the events. When we recognise the humanity within the characters, we put ourselves in their places, feel what they feel, enter their struggles and cheer for their successes. We then realise that it’s been the book that does this to us, that gives us this gift; and that’s a book we consider a success at having entertained, enlightened and enlivened us. It's what I hope people will see in [Deirdre, the Wanderer].

What do you think makes a story worth reading?

Every ‘good’ story has some combination of good characters, good plot, and good style-- including good mechanical use of the language. Details are well-researched and sensibly presented.   There is a balance between narrative and dialogue-- some things are better told through action and some through the characters themselves.  Most of all the story needs a voice.  A first-person narrator should be engaging, inviting and then keeping us in the story. I like to think Deirdre is one of these-- you will read the story because she’s the one telling it. But a third-person ‘voice’ can be just as engaging, a character in itself that keeps our interest.  My favourite ‘voices’ come from 18th-C authors such as Henry Fielding and Ann Radcliffe; but that’s my taste and others will have other preferences.

Ultimately a good ‘story’ needs a good message, some theme to leave us with when it’s come to the end. This is vital, sort of the raison d’etre of the whole book. Absent this, we will wonder what we were supposed to have got out of it; its worth will have seemed purely superficial.

In your opinion what makes a book a work of ‘literature’?

All literature must have at its core this two-part rationale: to educate and to entertain. In no small part the proportion of these two determines the style and genre. For example all good lectures and sermons are literature, because they must do both, perhaps more so to educate than to entertain. Comedy sketches are literature but may be in the reverse proportion. By this definition straight news reporting is not literature; its purpose, though to be interesting, is not to entertain but to inform. Conversely a story with no underlying educative message is only fluff.

The worth of a given book as literature depends on its author’s management of this proportion.  DTW is literature that entertains the reader with a clever story most engagingly told; but beyond that it is a lesson in the necessity of having to face negative circumstances of your own making. The reader is subtly cautioned throughout that an exciting concept such as striking out on your own might finish up being fraught with yet-unforeseen difficulties, which, perhaps due to pride or naïveté, no teenager ever wants to admit could actually exist, let alone befall her personally.

Is it true you live on a boat?

In season my home base is my sailboat. It is not big but it is an extension of both my need for limitless freedom and my need for a cosy cave to curl up in. In the off-season (or when it just gets too cold, rainy, or otherwise awkward) I will crash on friends or family. For some reason they tolerate me. Though by nature I am a ‘free spirit’, I have often found myself tied-down by circumstances and so the writing of Deirdre, the Wanderer has been a catharsis for me, a way of living vicariously through a fictional narrative-- the same impression I hope readers get from the book.

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01 April 2012

The White Queen rules.

In the interests of informing prospective buyers of the Rickenbacker 4001 bass guitar, I posted a review of the instrument on the Musician's Friend web pages.

[Note: The current 4001 model offered by Rickenbacker is a 're-issue' of the 'original' 1964 model (URL: http://www.musiciansfriend.com/bass/rickenbacker-4001c64-c-series-electric-bass-guitar), the likes of which has been played by Paul McCartney, among others.]


I wanted one of these all my life-- to the point of making my own bass in 1977 which used two Gibson bass humbucker pickups, running through two channels of my Randall RB-120 bass head, to simulate the Rick sound (see below).

This is the Steverino Sinbird 'Mk 1'.
Played it pretty much the same as I play the Rick-- even same strings.

Finally in 1980 I ordered a lefthanded 4001 in custom high-gloss white.  It wasn't a stock Rickenbacker '-glo' colour so I waited 6 months for it.  But I have used the dickens out of it ever since.

I still run it through both channels on the RB-120, one channel at all treble and no bass and the other at all bass and no treble-- and all midrange cranked off.  This simulates the bass-and-treble stereo 'Rick-O-Sound' without the hassle of bi-amping on stage.  In 1980 I met Rick, the bass player in Cats On A Smooth Surface ('70s NJ-Shore band), who had a lefty 4001 and told me he set the neck pickup at '10' and the bridge one at '2' which emphasises the bass-and-treble effect.  The 4001's drawback is that the neck pickup does not adjust very high [closer under the strings], so you've got to compensate by rolling back the bridge one.  Thus my [Fender-style] P-bass, which is pretty stock, sounds much gutsier if I happen to merely switch guitars without altering the amp's channel volumes.

Setting the 4001's knobs at anything means having to approximate it because there are no numerals on them.  Right-handed instruments have controls that turn clockwise to attenuate (increase volume or tone).  I suspect that the Rickenbacker's knobs may be actually reversed (going anticlockwise to attenuate) but in all truth I have never figured it out and usually have to roll them both ways to check.  But I only do this once each gig and leave the volume ones set on '10' and '2' as ever and the tone ones wide-open.

I always used Rickenbacker flat-wound light-gauge strings-- as I play almost exclusively with a pick-- but not long ago switched to Rotosound Swing 66's, which are the classic 1970s sound of Phil Lynott, Sting and McCartney.  I use the 40-95 set [these are very light gauge for bass strings!] and do not recommend anything over the 45-105 set as the 4001's neck is slender and the truss rods will not need much attention unless you insist on heavy strings.

About 95% of the time I use a guitar pick rather than playing with fingers.  Even for the bass I don't use a heavy pick.  Flat-wounds provide a cleaner sound and the light gauge allows for some degree of delicacy.  I hate just slamming the guitar had and fast to make noise (I'm not in The Ramones).  Stage volume is what amps are made for.


I have not a single complaint about the quality of the instrument.  I have not adjusted the bridge in years but recently sent the guitar in for service and the tech tuned out a minor fret buzz.  Other than that the guitar has been very durable and reliable, having spent plenty of time in salt-air environments (including gigs actually on the beach) with no signs of metal pitting, chrome chipping, paint wearing away, or anything more cosmetic than a subtle UV yellowing towards a kind of milky cream colour over three decades.

I would have liked one with no binding (like Macca's) but forgot to specify that when I ordered it.  The binding sort of rubs my wrist wrong whilst playing with a pick and I dislike the look of the binding [hard-edged white trim round the perimeter of the body].

I would have preferred dots in the fretboard too because the upside-down triangles look just awful.  Rickenbacker do not offer either of these options any more.

As the original bass guitarist for Foreigner, Ed Gagliardi played a lefty 'Fireglo' [Rickenbacker red] 4001 with upside-down triangles in the fretboard before I ordered mine (1977-1980) and I should have remembered how much I hated that when I ordered it.  But, I didn't.

Scott McCarl played a 'Jetglo' [black] 4001 when with The Raspberries.  [Scott also holds a distinction of being one of the (several) inspirations for the character of Jonathan in my novel Love Me Do.  In the sequel, It's Only Love, Jonathan acquires a custom lefty cranberry-red 4001 with fretboard dots and no binding... because that's what I wanted in 1975!]

The fault with the guitar's case is that, rather than just turning the lefthanded guitar over in the foam blocks of the case, the factory turned it end-for-end, so the handle set to one side of the middle latch is now over the lighter neck end! --and it is always heavy to the other end and one has to fight it towards level with the wrist whilst carrying it or else bang the bottom corner on the pavement and coach steps.


It is true that the 4001 series does appreciate in value-- for insurance purposes I had mine appraised and the 'replacement worth' came back at 5-6 times the purchase price of 30 years ago (and considerably more than a new one now, though I won't sadden anyone by saying what I paid for it then!).


In all this is an absolutely top-notch instrument, rather like a Jaguar E-Type or a Palmer Johnson Swan sailboat, the very best the industry has to offer, something that gives you a satisfied sensation to use and draws much admiration from audiences of all ages and tastes.

I had a nice conversation with Isaaca from The Bridges who plays a 1981 4001 and asked her how she liked playing a guitar that is older than she is (it was in 2009; she was 18 then).  She said, 'It's really cool.'  Clearly she knew what she was after when she chose it.

Like most excellent designs that must look stunning and perform well, the Rickenbacker 4001 is timelessly elegant and will never be passe or disappointing.  It really is the coolest bass guitar ever; and mine is my one prized possession.


I have decided to keep this instrument for life and shall will it to my grandchildren.  Real life can seem so devoid of bona-fide bequests of seriously-valuable heirlooms.  Perhaps The White Queen will be one in future... for someone I do not even know yet.