Content old and new

This week my day job took me to a conference on social media and the future of communication. There were speakers from Facebook, Twitter and myriad free-thinking marketing wonks illuminating what the future holds. They were dizzy with excitement about what lies around the corner for us in the way we communicate with each other.

The manner in which we record and share information, or ‘content’ as people in these circles love to call it, has changed out of all recognition in recent years. And we’re not done yet it seems. There’s new net-based thrills at every turn. Hold on, it’s going to be quite a ride.

davies-ethel-statue-of-newton-by-eduardo-paolozzi-the-british-library-london-england-united-kingdomIt happened that this gathering was held at the British Library in London, at the conference centre there. So at lunchtime I wandered across the courtyard with it’s imposing, if rather baffling, statue of Newton, and entered a dimly lit room in the main body of the great library.

There, in the gloom, are the collected treasures of the British Library. And I was awed to see communications devices from a different age. Ancient manuscripts and huge hand-written tomes, illuminated scrolls and documents of great age.

Never has the word treasures been more aptly used than for these marvellous books. All that was precious, all that was strange and wonderful, all that was worth writing down in an age when writing things down represented the pinnacle of new technology is here.

There are religious books from many faiths across the world, richly decorated in gold and beautifully crafted. Yet, some of the most fascinating artefacts are among the most humble in appearance – the hand-written early gospels unearthed from ancient desert dust, for example, which provide insight into the beliefs of early Christians.

The forging of political belief is represented here too – the Magna Carta, soiled and burnt and torn, it’s words and ideas still resonating down the centuries.

There’s music as well – a case of original hand-written manuscripts from Mozart through Beethoven to Handel’s Water Music, until finally at the end we find Beatles lyrics, the words to Yesterday scrawled on a page torn from an old notebook – the first draft of Ticket to Ride written on the back of a child’s birthday card.

And then we come to literature. Here’s an early Shakespeare folio, there notes from Milton and Jane Austen, Conrad and Angela Carter.

Beowulf_firstpage_jpegIn one corner of a case against the back wall is a small unassuming looking book. It is tatty and burnt at the edges. Its awkward, runic, Anglo-Saxon script is indecipherable to modern eyes. It is Beowulf, the earliest poem we have, the earliest literature of any kind, written in English. It is where our literature began.

I wonder what the British Library will keep from our brave new age of fast paced social media. What ‘content’ will become the treasures of the future? Will they keep our Facebook status updates? Will they preserve our tweets?

Soundtrack for Song of the Sea God

OK – so, a while ago I did a blog about how it’s possible to have a soundtrack for a book. Not for a film or TV show made based on the book you understand – but for the book itself. It could be sounds to listen to as you read the book, or simply songs which complement the themes and emotions conjured up by the text.

So here we have a soundtrack for Song of the Sea God. It’s something which I accept, won’t mean a great deal if you haven’t read the book yet. But the book is available now here in the UK and here in the USA, so please do read it – then you can join in the soundtrack game.

Obviously the music I’ve picked is what the book suggests rather than a list of my current favourites or even all time favourites – a different book would mean an entirely different soundtrack and a different feel. But it’s also fair to say that nobody is going to pick music for a soundtrack which they don’t like.

If you want to listen to the soundtrack as you read the book – the tracks are available on Spotify etc. If you have any additions or subtractions you feel ought to be made please let me know!

You can find the tracklist on Spotify here.

Miserere – Gregorio Allegri

First thing to say – Sea God isn’t a book about Christianity and certainly not some sort of critique. Still, I’ve chosen this Catholic choral piece as it’s mystery and majesty gives the book fantastic context. I love the back story to this piece of music too. It was hidden in the Vatican for many years as a prized jewel, performed only for the chosen few, until the church hierarchy allowed Mozart in to hear it – perhaps to show it off, perhaps because they realised he too was a miracle in musical form. What they didn’t realise was that he had a brain like an MP3 player – he heard the music just once – then wrote it down. Not just the general gist but every part, note for note, and, being of a democratic bent, he gave it to the world. He was worried he would be excommunicated – but the pope let him off.

John Riley – The Byrds

This is a traditional folk song which was picked up in the sixties by various artists including Joan Baez. It’s a haunting song about a woman waiting years for her lost love. I’ve gone for the Byrds version because their harmonies have a yearning quality which gives it extra depth and mystery. ‘What if he’s drowned-ed in the deep salt sea?’

Song to the Siren – This Mortal Coil

One of the best cover versions ever this in my opinion. Listen to the original by folk singer Tim Buckley (Jeff’s dad, though he never met him) and see how it has been given a whole new suit of clothes by the band which was to become the Cocteau Twins. it’s dark, ethereal and beautiful.

Charlie Darwin – The Low Anthem

Gentle and forlorn, this is a song about the human condition and water all around, which seems appropriate.

Nuages – Django Rheinhardt

Starts off sounding cold and creepy but soon enough turns warm and inviting – like Django always did. I’d include this one in honour of the character Barbara in the book, who is nothing if not warm and inviting, but can also turn cold.

You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are – Keaton Henson

A sort of love song this, of the type people write when the love’s just a shadow of what it once was. It’s also by a fairly new artist and so is my tragic attempt to appear down with the kids.

Songbird – Moulettes

Folky, northern sounding, happy and sad at the same time.

It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career –  Belle and Sebastian

Strikes me that this is the nearest thing here to pop music, and it really isn’t all that near is it? Anything which starts with the line ‘he had a stroke at the age of 24’ is hardly Justin Bieber.

Spencer the Rover – John Martyn

An old folk song about a tramp. No wait, it’s better than it sounds. For one thing it is full of compassion and wisdom – it makes the simple story of this lost man who finds his family again seem both wise and heroic. Plus it has Martyn’s smoky vocals and peerless guitar playing.

Anatomy of Love – Shelleyann Orphan

Fey, breathy pop from the 1990s with strings rather than rock instruments – ethereal and beautiful.

The Night Pat Murphy Died – Fiddler’s Green

Rowdy electric Irish folk music played, believe it or not, by Germans. I guess they must have listened to lot of Pogues CDs and just thought ‘We could do that‘ – and why not?

River Man – Nick Drake

Calm but with hidden depths, like the sea some days.

I Dream of Spring – K. D Lang

A sad song about the death of love, beautifully sung. To an extent I think that Song of the Sea God is a story about first the birth, then the death of love.

Frankie’s Gun – The Felice Brothers

And this is the nearest thing here to ‘rock music’ though really it’s American roots or folk or something. A heartbreaking tale of death and betrayal – with a whole world in the lyrics, like a novel in a song.

Athene – John Tavener

Yes, it’s more church music I know. Look, if you write a book which has a spiritual theme it is going to have some spiritual music attached to it I think – music where people are trying to explain, in sounds, the mystery of religion.

Soooo – that’s it. If you have any to add I would be fascinated to hear them.

Show don’t tell

Chekhov, now there’s a big name. Of course, we all know and respect his work. Without his deft navigation skills the USS Enterprise would have been pointing in the wrong direction all through the first few series of Star Trek.

Apparently there was some other guy called Chekhov before him though – he was much less well known, more literary, and didn’t provide me with an opportunity to include the term Star Trek in my blog tags, but he did know a thing or two about writing.

anton_checkovThough Anton Chekhov was rightly lauded for his plays – The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and so on, the 19th Century Russian writer was also master of the short story and he provided one of my favourite quotes about writing.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

What’s that all about then? Well basically what he’s summing up in powerful and poetic fashion is what has come to be known as ‘show don’t tell.’ That’s a technique much beloved of creative writing courses where would be writers are encouraged, for example, to focus not on telling the reader directly what a character is feeling, but instead on showing the reader things which allow him to make his own mind up.

For what it’s worth, my view on this is that a better phrase would be ‘show and tell’. The trouble with being prescriptive in writing is that it excludes  – and while excluding some terrible writing it might also exclude some great, experimental work.

So it never does to be too closed minded. Still, it’s a useful point to bear in mind I think, show don’t tell.

Whether you are describing moonlight or a character’s state of mind, the route one, blunt description is likely to be less involving, less evocative for the reader, than showing them something which draws them into the text and allows them to decide for themselves what is going on. Do it that way and you have given them a stake in the action – you have made the reader part of the story.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Great interview here about my writing and about Song of the Sea God – it was great to talk in detail about my work and the themes of the book with a fellow author who has read and enjoyed it!

Words worth their weight

I’ve written before about economy in writing. I believe that, often, the way to go is to make each word count, rather than throwing a big mixed bag of them at the reader in the hope that some stick.

800px-Leonidas_King_of_the_SpartansSo here’s my favourite example of economical writing. It comes not from literature but from ancient history and the dry wit of the war machine which was Sparta.

In 346BC, the mighty Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, had used the power of his imperial armies to conquer most of the Greek territories and finally turned his attention to the Spartan city-state. He offered them a deal, they could avoid the devastation which would surely follow by surrendering and submitting to his rule. He sent them a letter:

“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartans replied to this with a letter of their own. When Philip opened it he found it contained just a single word:


How ever many thousands of words they wrote, the Spartans could not have been more eloquent than that. Philip considered his options, maybe read over the letter from the Spartans again a few times, then avoided Sparta entirely, as did Alexander during his great empire building mission some years later.

That one word, ‘if’ is the first example of what has become known as a laconic reply – Laconia being the name of the lands around Sparta.

So I say again, you don’t need to say a lot to make an impact, you just need to say the right thing.

You’ll struggle to find a modern novelist who doesn’t weigh his or her words carefully I think, but I’ve been struck that some novelists who started out as poets seem the most inclined to write in this spare way. Example? James Dickey. He was already an American poet of some note when he wrote Deliverance. It’s a book I would recommend to you as it’s beautifully written. It has a prose style you might describe as sparse, it does the job wonderfully, but without adornment. It seems Dickey’s time as a poet had taught him to write not in a florid, showy way – but economically, like the Spartans.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.