Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I have been embroiled in on-line discussions lately about the ticklish business of literary quality control. The chatter ranged around such matters as how emerging writers know if what they are working on is any good, and how to fix problems when they are encountered.  If it's any help (and it probably won't be if I know writers, and I do) it is not only emerging writers who have such concerns. Almost all writers, at any stage of their careers, lack a critical layer of protective skin, are deeply insecure and crave praise and encouragement.

Christopher Hampton, British writer and dramatist, remarked that asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs. Well, just ask me. I'm a working writer and a critic, both roles of long-standing. So sometimes I'm the lamp-post and sometimes I'm the dog. Here's my take on the question of quality control.

It can be helpful for writers to consult others when problems arise – not just other writers but people who can be trusted to have sensible, thoughtful opinions. Other people are, ultimately, the reading public, they must be seduced, and writers have to learn how to do that. Given enough opinions from enough people, a struggling writer can arrive at a kind of consensus and carry on writing with some confidence. Even opposing opinions can be helpful: your BFF Kerri loves it – that's great! but so does your cousin Garfield, which is a bit of a worry, but then Dad said it was a load of cobblers, so maybe it's okay after all. That is feedback, and valuable in its own way.

At a later stage of the writing process, when the story or novel is finished, and written as well as it can be, the writer needs to know if it passes a more critical evaluation before sending the precious work out into the real world. He or she needs to find someone, or a small group, to cast a fresh, critical and knowledgeable eye over the work, to examine it for inconsistencies, to identify weaknesses and suggest improvements. This is critiquing and requires certain skills and experience.  

Speaking as the dog, it is not possible to critique a half-baked work in progress. Speaking as the lamp-post, please be honest, but also considerate of my feelings and my ego!

P.S. 27 July: A reader couldn't resist and has contributed the following:

Said the lamp post to the dog
“My poor nerves are fraught today.”
Said the dog in quick reply
“Just get tough and look away!”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

FREDERICK FITZGERALD - an Irish wannabe?

The following was written by my friend Margaret who has been chasing the story of her great-great-great-grandfather for years:

Who was Frederick Fitzgerald? Was he an Irish wannabe, or was he part of an aristocratic Irish family? Why does he seem to have no history until he departed from Liverpool on 23 December 1843?  Did he swap identities with someone else, and why does he seem to disappear from all records for long periods during his lifetime?

Frederick & his Resta g-daughters

Frederick Fitzgerald was my great-great-great-grandfather. He is my own international man of mystery. Questions about his life have intrigued me for years. I have established that he arrived in Sydney in 1844 aboard the ship United Kingdom, travelling under a different name. To date I have been totally unable to locate any formal proof of his identity under either of the names he used – at least not in Ireland, in any of the locations with which he claimed to be associated. So why did he seem to need two identities so early in his life, and which one – if either – is actually correct? 

I know from his arrival documents that Frederick was a 'bounty immigrant' to Australia. An agent back in Liverpool, employed by the Australian authorities, had assessed him as a suitable candidate to settle in the colonies, and on his safe arrival had been paid £18 7s 6d. But how did Frederick get to be on the United Kingdom, and more importantly, why? The potato famines in Ireland had not begun in 1843. Gold had not yet been discovered in Australia. So why was this young man apparently emigrating to the bottom of the world? And why can I find no evidence of his life, or that of his parents, in Ireland? All his named referees, and the certifying doctor and clergyman, check out. These people existed, and their details as provided on Frederick’s immigration documents are correct. But Frederick and his parents remain invisible.

From Australia he came to New Zealand and lived and mined intermittently at Macetown, Otago, for several years from 1868.  He might even be considered the patriarch of Macetown, being the father of Fanny Beale, whose husband Elisha Joseph Beale, was one of the original discoverers of gold at Macetown.  Frederick Fitzgerald’s four daughters all lived at Macetown; he was grandfather to the Beale, Cox and Resta families who lived there, and to the Tripp family of Skippers. Some of his Beale grandchildren married into other Macetown families and further perpetuated the link with the town.

But who really was Frederick?  The answer has to be out there, somewhere. I wish I knew where!

Margaret would appreciate any information about the elusive Frederick Fitzgerald. Send me an email if you know anything.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Light no fires
There's a new craze sweeping the Twittersphere.  Somebody wrote a short blog (which I now can't find) offering a tongue-in-cheek bad writing tip. Twitter has gone wild with enthusiastic tweets offering more bad writing advice, and bloggers and feature writers have weighed in with their versions.  I've collected some of the tweets and put my own spin on them.

Start every second sentence with "Suddenly ..."

Use really, really long words, even if you don't know what they mean – readers won't know either but it will seem intelligent.

Give your characters names that clearly indicate whether they are good or bad, like Pollyanna Smith or Hannibal Lecter.

Your characters names should all start with the same letter.

There are lots of plots out there so just borrow one, it saves having to think.

All words ending in S should have an apostrophe in front of them. You might be right about a third of the time, and near enough is good enough when writing.

End all chapters with "then he woke up!"

When your characters are in the middle of fast-paced action of some kind, have them stop to enjoy the sunset.

Your first thoughts are your best thoughts, so don't bother to re-read and re-write your manuscript, it's a waste of time.

Don't bother to punctuate properly – make the readers work out what you're trying to say. If they stumble it's their fault.

Think of at least a thousand ways to write "he said" and use all of them.

The first four chapters of your novel should be back-story and scene-setting, without action or dialogue.

Writers know best, especially new writers. Don't let editors, publishers or agents tell you to change a single precious word.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Five months at sea, no radio or television – what did a couple of hundred people do for fun on the sailing ship Euterpe in 1879? They made their own fun, and everybody joined in, including the crew.

A band was formed – the Tin Plate Band. There were even some proper instruments. The first officer, Algernon Back, played the violin and so did the chief steward, Mr Chapman. A passenger, Mr Plant, played the piccolo; he was "a gentleman of diminutive stature" according to the ship's newspaper, so small that for one concert he was carefully helped on to a stool to general amusement. Mr Tichbon played something but we don't know what, there was more than one concertina, and it's a fairly safe bet that somebody had a harmonica.

For the rest, they improvised and made their own music. They hooted and tooted, drummed, blew and banged anything that made a satisfactory noise: platters, preserved meat tins and tin reflectors, fiddles and fifes, and "at night soft strains of music / woo Somnus with their tones / Tones distilled and sweetly culled / from hook-pots and pork bones" as the ship's poet described it. There was dancing every evening when weather permitted – country dances, waltzes, schottische and Sir Roger de Coverley.

During the day there were athletics, and games such as deck quoits, with rings of rope tossed at a small post.  Bossy Mr Ellis conducted a drill parade one afternoon, and races of all kinds were enjoyed by men and children of both sexes, the women probably acting only as spectators. Once round the deck measured 150 yards (135 metres) and on one occasion Duff, "an old man about fifty," and a young Irishman, Whisky O'Hanlon, ran five times around the deck – 750 yards (675 metres). Duff stripped off and went first and finished in 1.48, followed by Whisky, who amused the spectators by appearing in "a pair of tight skins and a black belt" and beat the old man by 22 seconds, "so two got him on their shoulders and carried him round the deck" to celebrate.

The fixtures were far from elitist. Everyone, including children, enjoyed sack races, three-legged races, hurdling over the yard-arms, hand-over-hand on a tightrope (the sailors excelled at that, not surprisingly) and a race with contestants carrying buckets of water on their heads, the winner being the one whose bucket contained the most water on reaching the winning post. There were modest prizes for nearly everything – the most was six shillings (won by the tug-o-war team) but usually pennies or a shilling.

The ship's Doctor Davies no doubt watched all this approvingly, given his strong opinions on the value of exercise "to aid blood circulation, call the abdominal muscles into play, and promote the action of the bowels, thus counteracting "any tendency to gastric derangements and intestinal torpidity".

Photo courtesy of Mike Wood Photography, with grateful thanks