Activism and government

Fridays For Future press conference on Africa and the climate crisis

In today’s press conference about the climate crisis and Africa organised by Fridays For Future International, one of main concerns was getting the message about climate change across and creating wide-spread awareness. Activists do not seek to govern, especially not the young. They see their role as using actions like strikes and demonstrations to force those who govern to act appropriately. In addition, putting their faith as they do in science, their activism seeks to shift scientific knowledge from the laboratories to the hands of activists and policy makers in a quest for urgently needed solutions. The fact that some elected leaders refuse the idea of climate change and deride science is just a further indication that we need to revise forms of government including the way leaders are chosen, how decisions are reached and how policies are put into practice.

Much was said in the press conference about the way mainstream media sidelines the discourse of all but the few. This raises the question of whether effort should be put into convincing the media to cover such subjects or if other relays might be appropriate. This ties in with a comment by Naomi Klein in a webinar also organised by Fridays For Future about developing multiple channels of communication so as not to be dependant on a limited number of media platforms that don’t always have our interests at heart.

At the same time, the very nature of this multimedia press conference and the discourse of the young people taking part underlines the need to have the best possible narrative. In other words, not only do the neglected stories need to be heard, but also the narrators need to present their stories in a way that can be heard and adhered to.

Both my books, Stories People Tell and the sequel, Local Voices, are traversed by these themes. The following extract from Local Voices illustrates that, even when you’ve got the ear of those in power, many factors conspire to make action difficult. Annie, the young head of a nation-wide movement of girls and women, is talking to Underwood, the Prime Minister, and Dillinger, Deputy Prime Minister. Alice, mentioned at the end of the extract, is a surrogate grandmother, an elderly professor who acts as Annie’s mentor and friend.

Extract

Dillinger took a seat next to Annie and looked expectantly at Underwood who in turn looked at Annie. She took a deep breath. She had started this, so maybe it was up to her to end it. “You want to know how to abandon your healthcare initiative without losing face.”

Underwood winced, saying, “As direct and to the point as ever.”

“I don’t see how we can abandon one of our main manifesto promises without losing face,” Dillinger said. “The opposition will slaughter us.” If the news on TV was anything to go by, the opposition had them backed into a corner and three-quarters done for already.

“Go on TV and announce you have heard the concerns of the healthcare community. Invite the unions to London for talks. Channel their energy into official discussions. At the same time, send all your MPs out to their constituencies and have them talk to the people. Send out civil servants. Send scientists. Send everybody.”

“Hold constituency surgeries, you mean?” Dillinger asked.

“No. That would be too limited. Not just your voters. Everybody. Find out what difficulties people are having with healthcare. Include mental health and social services. Explore local initiatives, collate findings and begin to look for ways to help without necessarily intervening. Leave the initiative to the local community, wherever possible. Talk publicly about your findings, praise what people are doing locally, but promise nothing.” Halting to catch a breath, she added, “And brace yourself to cease your drive for austerity. It’s hurting the poorest and weakest worst of all and will undermine any effort you make to improve local healthcare.”

Underwood looked alarmed. Dillinger whistled between her teeth. “I wonder why we bother. We might as well just hand you the keys and let you get on with it. At least you’d take the brunt of the blame and recriminations from the rich and the conservatives.”

“Even if my replacing you were remotely possible,” Annie replied, remembering a discussion she’d had with Alice, “I wouldn’t be interested. I’m the ideas at the periphery, the person who stands astride worlds, who bridges the gap between widely different communities, not the prime mover at the centre of things who gets things done.”

Learn more about Local Voices

The dangers of contradicting someone’s feelings

Shutting the door

Sarah, Eloise and Peter are lying on Eloise’s bed. Peter is grappling with guilt about having been in Sarah’s arms when his soul-mate, Kate, contacted him. Sarah challenges his words. In this short extract Eloise sets Sarah right.

“Let him speak,” Eloise said. “He’s telling us how he feels. You might see things differently, but you can’t deny his feelings. Only he can know what they are. That’s where my parents got it all wrong. They thought they knew my feelings better than me. They had me doubting myself. There’s nothing worse than being unsure about your own feelings. It’s as if you are cut off from yourself. Their interference left me painfully shy and insecure. Only when I got away from them, did I gradually realise how misguided they were and how damaging their attitude had been.” We Girls Show the Way.

Homelessness

Tiles for the homeless

It’s all very well telling people to stay at home to combat the Corona Virus. But what about those who have no roof over their heads? Those who have no home to return to?

Extract about homelessness

In Stories People Tell, amongst other things, Annie sets out to publish the stories of those whose voices don’t get heard, using video and the Internet to enable people to bear witness. In this extract she is listening to a homeless grandmother forced to look after her granddaughter, Pet, who has ceased to talk since her mother died.

“My daughter had a flat and a job. It wasn’t well paid. The place was a dump. But we got by. The three of us. The father was supposed to pay. But he never did. Then my daughter lost her job. Cutting back on cleaners the supermarket said. We got benefit for a while. Then that ran out. Some hitch in the system. They have no money either. The landlord threatened eviction. My daughter took to the street. She was desperate. The money was good. Sometimes. It paid the rent. And we had something to eat. But one of the blokes got violent. Exploded in a frenzy. Roughed her up. Couldn’t stop punching and kicking. The ambulance arrived too late. Pet was there when her mother died. Saw it all. I remember it so well. She sat there like a doll, frozen, her eyes blank, not understanding. How could she? It was too much. She was just five. That’s when she stopped talking. Hasn’t spoken a word since. The police never caught the guy. If ever they tried. The landlord kicked me and Pet out. Didn’t want such sordid people in his house. Folks give us food. From time to time. Or a bit of money. Like this afternoon. I was to get a fiver. For taking part in the demonstration. We muddled by. Then Pet got ill. There was nothing I could do. Doctors don’t want to treat homeless beggars. The hospital wouldn’t have us. Thank heavens she recovered. On her own. Sometimes I wonder why. But the worst is not having a place to go. When evening comes. People are hurrying home to a good meal. And we have nowhere. And nothing to eat. It kills you in the end. I’ve seen loads of people give up. They find a quiet corner. So as not to disturb. Then just lie down and never get up.” 

Find out more about the novel Stories People Tell.

Silence is more than the absence of sound…

Silence of snow

Silence had fallen, a thick blanket of snow masking all sound. Snow had been extremely rare in her world, so the texture of silence that accompanied heavy snow was new. Rather like wading through snow, silence resisted movement. Her meditation master had taught her the value of silence, but never had she had such tangible proof that there was so much more to silence than the absence of sound… Kate in We Girls Show the Way.

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Alan McCliskey's novels

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Authors Give Back Sale

In recent days as the global Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, several Smashwords authors reached out to Smashword’s founder Mark Coker, asking him to run a special sale for readers. The idea being to use books to help mitigate the emotional and economic hardship faced by citizens of every country, many of whom are now forced to stay home and self-isolate. The hope is that you, your friends, and your family might find redemptive strength, comfort, and enjoyment from these books. (Adapted from the Smashwords Newsletter)

Some hints on tightening up your manuscript

Editing your manuscript
Fading graffiti near Neuchatel

I am currently re-editing the first two books of the Boy & Girl Saga with a view to publishing the third book. When I mention editing, I am not talking about ensuring grammatical accuracy or correct spelling. That is important, but it is not the focus here. I refer rather to efforts to increase the impact of a novel while maintaining a high degree of precision in communicating what the author has in mind. To some extent there is a tension between making sure the reader understands and having a greater impact. 

There are many facets to editing. These include, the music of the words, cadence, rhythm, word order, impact, the treatment of time, questions of point of view, distance or lack of it,  style. Not to mention aspects linked to the audience addressed. After years of practice, editing my own novels but also articles of clients, there are many things I instinctively sense as ‘out of tune’, but they can be hard to explain. The musical metaphor is appropriate, as much of editing has to do with the ear and the rise and fall of words. Training your ear involves a great deal of listening, reading and writing.

If your prose is leisurely and you have all the time in the world, then much of what I say may not concern you. Some people’s writing is full to overflowing with words. That’s their style. It can work, especially if wordiness is a trait of a main character or the narrator, although it can be risky. But much modern writing, especially for a younger audience, needs to move forward rapidly using tight, impactful prose. Impact invariably has to do with the twists and turns of the plot, but it also depends heavily on the tightness of the writing. Although the challenges are different in academic texts, the need for a wider reach for research work also calls for attention to concision and impact. It is improving the impact of writing by tightening up the prose that is the subject of this article.

The facets of editing treated here are possibly the easiest to describe and the most common as well as being accessible without having to venture into the details of a wider context. I do not pretend to exhaustivity. The few examples given are meant to hint at some of what to look for when editing a manuscript.

Unnecessary words

One common problem is unnecessary words that bloat the text and diminish the impact. Consider the words ‘the idea of’. In the following sentence, The idea of being punished by Fi sounded fun… The first three words might be construed as stressing that it is the idea and not being punished that is fun. However this clarification is hardly necessary as it is implied in the word ‘sounded’, Being punished by Fi sounded fun.

A second fill-in is ‘of them‘. Consider this extract: “Don’t ask men. Most of them are pretty hopeless at dealing with adoration…” It would suffice to say, “Don’t ask men. Most are pretty hopeless at dealing with adoration… It would also be tempting to omit the word ‘pretty’, but it says something useful about the character of the speaker.

A further habit is adding ‘feeling of‘ before stating the feeling being referred to. Here’s an example, …added to his feeling of confusion. Those couple of unnecessary words lessen the impact of what is being said. Just write, …added to his confusion.

One final example. The use of ‘they were in‘ ostensibly to underscore the fact that they are talking about the place they are in. Here’s an example, Peter was about to warn her to respect the holy place they were in…We know from the story they are in a chapel so the extra words are not necessary.

Trying to add nuance can be counterproductive

As hinted above, one of the challenges of writing is to communicate the author’s nuances to the reader. While precision is extremely important, especially as expressed in the choice of words, communicating many nuances may not be essential to the story and can hinder the flow and impact. One way we seek to nail down nuance is by tacking on additional words. Academics are particularly fond of doing so as they strive to avoid ambiguity. As a result, academic texts can be unnecessarily repetitive if not laborious. But novel writers can also be over cautious and verbose in wanting to dictate, or at least channel, what the reader understands.

Take the verb to manage. If we write, Despite the broken lock, he managed to open the door, the verb expresses his ability to overcome a difficulty and its use is justified. But what about the following sentence, We managed to clear the room out earlier with the help of the new girls. The suggestion is that clearing out was not easy or that there was little time to do it. But if the difficulty was not the key point, insisting on such a nuance only wedges words between us and what we are trying to say, diminishing the impact. Better to say, We cleared the room… 

This example above gives us another frequent use of unnecessary words. The sentence says, the help of. This is not necessary. It is understood from the context. In a similar case, “Fine,” Sandra said, striding up at that moment, the words at that moment are unnecessary. When else can it be?

We often include words that double up for ideas expressed elsewhere in the sentence. Take, …she let her emotions of disgust and shame flow with her words… We don’t need to say emotions. Write rather: …she let her disgust and shame flow with her words. 

Consider the words at the expression in this extract. “Who’s your friend?” Kate groaned at the expression. The words seek to make sure we know it wasn’t for some other reason she groaned. But depending on the context that precision may be superfluous.

Here’s another example where being over precise may be counterproductive. “As a leader, it’s your job to figure out how to deal with it.” The words to figure out how seem to add additional precision pointing to a need to struggle to understand. But is stressing the nuance worth the weakening of the impact? How about: “As a leader, it’s your job to deal with it.”

The risk of tacking a second idea on to a sentence

Another common trait is tacking on additional ideas to the end of a sentence. Some adepts string together numerous ideas that leave the reader whirling and breathless. In the following extract the phrase causing them to gasp tagged on to the end of the sentence dilutes the first part which, as an idea in itself, has much more impact on its own. The action of gasping can be usefully shifted to the second sentence, replacing wonder, a word that refers back to the gasping and in so doing diminishes its impact.

Here are the two sentences: A couple of shooting stars darted across the star-studded heavens causing them to gasp. Their wonder was the only sound in the silence that inhabited the snow-shroud landscape. Edited this, it would become: A couple of shooting stars darted across the star-studded heavens. Their gasp was the only sound in the silence that inhabited the snow-shroud landscape.

Sleepwalking on the road to chaos

De-trumped!

… the manipulation of reality using words and images till reality is no longer anchored to anything but the will of the powerful …

In an excellent little book H.G. Frankfurt writes about bullshit (1). The concept is particularly pertinent at the current moment although the word may be misleading as it is regularly misused. Contrary to popular belief, bullshit is not about lying. Bullshitters don’t lie. In fact, they are indifferent to how things are. Like liars, they are trying to get away with something by telling a story, but contrary to liars, they firmly believe the “reality” they are spinning whereas liars know what they are saying is not true. Bullshitters throw all their energy into maintaining their ‘reality bubble’ as its potential collapse hangs like an existential threat over them. In many ways, their identity depends on it. The dynamic of this situation which requires them to ignore they are scaffolding a false reality blinds them to the real reason they continually feel threatened. What’s more, the further their ‘reality’ shifts from the way the world is, the more effort maintaining it requires. Under normal circumstances the ever growing pressure of keeping up appearances leads to a collapse of the whole project. At one extreme, the system becomes progressively rigid and finally grinds to a halt. At the other, it becomes increasingly frenetic till it explodes, unable to contain its contradictions. The pursuit of bullshit leads ultimately to the breakdown of reason and the eruption of folly.

The Trump administration however has taken bullshit to a whole new level, discovering ways to lay ambitious foundations for a lasting alternate, nightmarish reality that thrives on the cusp of chaos. Part of the success of their strategy no doubt lies in what Naomi Klein calls shock doctrine (2) which Trumpism has extended to an all-out assault on every facet of society. Rather than seeking to create some resemblance of reasonableness, their alternate reality is so outrageous and shocking if not life-threatening, it has people reeling and unable to respond. Migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in camps in the desert. Victims of a hurricane-devastated island blamed for incompetence and refused aid. The voting rights of those who oppose them systematically suppressed. The brazen claim that an admittedly criminal president is above the law because he knows what’s ‘right’ for the people. The media, the administration, the parliamentary system, the judiciary, the education system, the healthcare system, the mechanisms for protection of the environment, the defence of human rights, the basis for international trade, the functioning of bodies for collaborative, world-wide governance,… all derided and undermined. Rather than redistributing wealth to lessen the gap between rich and poor, advantages are heaped on the rich and powerful at the expense of the under-privileged. Rather than seeking an all embracing society, large sections are demonised and marginalized, if not excluded or eliminated. Coloured people, women, the gay and transgender, the indigenous folk, the poor and down-and-out, migrants, all are targeted.

All this while language is systematically manipulated, doing one thing and proclaiming the opposite in a way and to an extent that George Orwell (3) foreshadowed in his 1984 grim reality. Such an abuse of the relationship between language and the world is tantamount to a denial of the distinction between truth and lies that ultimately undermines reality leaving the stage free for a ‘reality’ untethered from the checks and balances of the real world. Welcome to Trump World. In such a world, neither justice nor democracy can function correctly as the recent impeachment trial of Trump so frustratingly illustrates.

Another aspect of this bullshit of chaos that Trumpism epitomises is breaking down the distinction between government and cheap television along with social media. Not only are favorable but incompetent TV talk-show hosts co-opted to enact government, but government discourse is voided of reasoned policies and replaced by a stream of enraged, ill-thought-out tweets, snippets of opinions cast to an avid media pack under the incessant whir of a departing helicopter and televised mass-rallies that are a cross between the third Reich incitation to hatred and a reality show in which the self-important, but very-definitely-mad king has turned buffoon to the delight of his supporters and the bemused dismay of his detractors.

One of the central techniques of hypnosis is the bewilderment of the would-be subject by a string of incoherent pronouncements or actions that put him in a trance and make his manipulation so much easier. The shrug of the ignore-it-it’s-just-Trump or the snigger at another slurred word or incoherent sentence are just symptoms of a collective deadening to the onslaught of a would-be wheeler-and-dealer that is threatening the very foundations of our world, of our reason. Wake up world! This man has us sleep-walking on the road to chaos and the cliff edge is only inches away.

  1. Frankfurt H.G., On bullshit, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.
  2. Klein N., Shock Doctrine, Penguin, London, 2008.
  3. Orwell G., 1984, Penguin, London, first published in 1949.

A sad day indeed

GB-EU passport

On the eve of the official UK departure from the European Union, I am filled with profound sadness. I don’t share the opinion of those who think the debate will magically go away. It will never disappear. There are fundamental tenets involved in the adhesion to Europe that we must continue to defend. These have to do with solidarity, openness, the acceptance of diversity, the defence of a shared cultural heritage, the need to oppose rampant capitalism that favours short-term profit over the wellbeing of individuals, however poor, and the survival of the planet,… Not all of these values are as well served by European institutions as they might be. But that is no reason to slam the door in the face of friends and partners. We need to work together to improve Europe. The challenges facing the world can only be resolved by exchange and collaboration.

I left the UK when I was just twenty. Fifty years later, I am still profoundly attached to the country of my birth, even if I don’t recognise it in many of the current actions of the government and citizens alike. Over a good many years, successive UK governments have run down institutions and infrastructure leading to growing discontent that politicians and certain media have diligently stoked and redirected against the EU.

At the same time I feel deeply European. I distance myself from those who side with going-it-alone in the misguided belief that they are somehow better than others. Even if I can understand the need for national pride, the myth of British superiority is long dead. I distance myself from those who bank on deregulation to get rich quick, who would side with the likes of Trump in raping the world to reap ever more riches for the super-rich. They completely disregard the impact of such a policy on the poor and the disenfranchised, not to mention the environment. The super-rich can build all the walls they like, they won’t be spared the disasters yet to come. I distance myself from those adepts of bullshit who are masters at creating an alternative reality, one that they drive home via traditional and social media as the new, inescapable way of things. They are often taxed as liars, but to be liars, you need to realise what you are saying is not true. Whereas they come to believe the ‘reality’ they’ve fabricated. In so doing, they undermine reality and make a mockery of truth. They render justice and democracy impossible. Only in a united Europe that favours both solidarity and diversity over racism and exclusion, that favours wellbeing both of humans and the environment over profit, that champions truth and justice against the onslaught of lies and bullshit, can we standup to these existential threats.

See also Sleepwalking on the Road to Chaos for more about bullshit and Trumpism.

Greta the Great!

Greta

Greta the Great. No irony is meant by the title. Few adults can claim to have been such a powerful advocate for social change confronted with the climate crisis. Few people have been capable of mobilising so many, in particular the young, in such a short time. She has captured people’s minds and hearts and inspired many. The way she cuts through the misleading if not dishonest discourse of many politicians is both admirable and urgently necessary. Her actions move me deeply. Not only because she has pitted herself against the powerful in a struggle that our survival depends on, but also because she reminds me of the girls who are the heroes of my novels, Kate in the Boy & Girl Saga, Annie in Stories People Tell and Local Voices, Sally in The Storyteller’s Quest or Sami in Chimera.

All my books are about the self-empowerment of the young, girls in particular, in a world that tends to curtail their opportunities, belittle their abilities and discourage them from doing great things. My goal in writing fiction is to imagine inspiring ways forward, despite the difficulties thrown in the way of these young people. I began writing these novels long before Greta came on the scene, but to see a young girl manage so much is encouraging and heart-warming.

That said, the treatment of Greta by the media, in particular those that are favorable to her and her cause, raises questions that I evoke in my latest novel We Girls Show the Way. The elevation of a young person to ‘saviour-like’ status is troubling. As Kate suggests in the following extract, the media capitalise on the glorified image they portray of her. What will be the impact on her and the cause she defends? Will Kate’s strategy, just like that of Greta, attempting to deflect media attention to other actors in the struggle, be enough.

Extract from We Girls Show the Way

Twelve year-old Kate – head of the Lost Girls choir, a group of some twenty girls that escaped from dire conditions in a convent-run orphanage – is being questioned by a young journalist about her reactions to the escape of another group of mistreated orphans girls…

“But as leader, surely you have an opinion,”  the journalist asked.

The word ‘leader’ brought Kate up short. She was indeed the leader and it was only right she be recognised as such. Yet she’d already seen how the press singled out an individual as a figurehead and glorified that person, repeatedly talking of her and only her, shaping her public image till she became a currency they could cash in on. That said, there was probably little she could do against it, less it be to push other members of the choir into the spotlight as she planned to do with their pamphlets. Thinking of which, she turned to Suzanne who was busy sorting dried herbs.  “What do you think?”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

We Girls Show the Way – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Beyond the division between child and adult

We Girls Show the Way

I have just completed the first draft of We Girls Show the Way, my 14th novel, the third in the Boy & Girl saga. When I began writing this new novel some five months ago, I was sure it would be all about Peter’s dilemma with gender. After all, he was up against a fast approaching deadline and he’d very soon have no choice but to stop taking the hormones and accept he was a man. Living as he did in the early 60’s, there seemed to be no alternative, especially as circumstances conspired to force that outcome on him. It was a dismal prospect that had me hesitating about writing a follow-up at all. 

Clinging on to that ambiguity in the no-man’s land between boy and girl was like trying to suspend time when Peter’s natural inclination was to intervene in the world, helping and healing others and combatting those who sought to do ill. If he was gifted in any way, it was that treading a delicate line between girl and boy preserved him from the soaring ego that often gets in the way of those who seek to do good.

That tension between a thirst for eternal youth and a drive to intervene in the world to set things right led him to a realisation. The artificial distinction between childhood and adulthood was a major stumbling block to both him and Kate reaching their full potential and doing great things. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they could find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems that adults had turned their backs on.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

We Girls Show the Way – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)