Learn Your Scales

Ask anyone who knows anything about music and they’ll tell you: if you want to learn to play your instrument properly you need to learn your scales.

Few people do, and we all know why that is. Scales are boring. No one learns an instrument to play scales, they want to play tunes for their own enjoyment and to impress their friends. You don’t become the life and soul of the party by playing the scale of G major.

It wasn’t until lockdown that I properly applied myself to learning the scales on the piano. I wish I’d learned them earlier. For a start, I’d have been more impressive to my friends sooner.  Of course, now I’m a good (though immodest) player I don’t care what my friends think. (I do care what other musicians think, though)

Why am I writing this? I never listened my own advice, so why would you?

It’s because of this:

A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.

I have a friend who says that Self Help books clearly don’t work. If they did, there would only be one, not shelves and shelves of them as you see in bookshops. She’s probably right. But it occurs to me that maybe there are so many books because they say the same thing but in different ways.

Maybe sometimes the message goes in.

Face it, there’s no secret to life. Eat less, exercise more, be nice to people and learn your scales.

And if you want to be a writer, start a blog.

The Blank Wall

On Monday night I watched Vermeer: the Greatest Exhibition. This is described as “a narrated private view of the largest Vermeer Exhibition in history, currently held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.”

The painting that really caught my attention was the Milkmaid. As the narrators explained, Vermeer had given depth to the painting by the use of shadow. Light entered the room from the window the left, shadows can be seen on the woman’s left hand side (the viewer’s right) and in the left corner of the room. The contrast with the light on the woman’s right hand side gives the sense of space. The narrators were at pains to point out that Vermeer painted light, not colour.

The thing that really caught my attention, the thing I’ve been thinking about since Monday, is the wall behind the woman. The narrators mentioned the wall: that blank space that added to the depth of the picture.

The thing about the wall is that it wasn’t always blank. X-ray pictures of the canvas revealed that that Vermeer had originally painted a patterned wall. (I can’t be sure, but looking at the picture now, I think the tiles you can see at the bottom right of the picture extended much further up). There had originally been items on the floor, too. Apparently Vermeer always did this, continually revised the work as he painted.

I thought that was important. He followed his instinct, changing things as it went on.

Most importantly, he didn’t feel the need to fill the canvas with detail. I keep looking at the woman’s left hand side now, seeing the line of shadow that runs down against the wall. And that makes me think about figure and ground, and the settings of stories, and all the things I write about on this blog…

One last thing. Isn’t Wikipedia wonderful? Not just the words, but all those pictures available to look at for free. I make a regular donation to Wikipedia, I use it so much.

That thing Experienced Writers Do…

I’d always recommend joining a writers’ group. I think it’s a valuable experience no matter what your level of experience. If nothing else you get to talk shop with people who understand.

While reading submissions for a recent meeting something struck me about the difference between the work of the experienced writers work and that of the newer members.

It all came down to depth v haste.

The experienced writers lingered. They favoured depth over action. They had fewer characters and took the the time to explore them. There was sense of characters listening and reacting to each other rather than just arguing to create drama.

With the experienced writers, everything is richer, more distilled. Moments are examined. That doesn’t mean that things can’t be fast paced, it might be that fewer things are looked at in more detail.

One reason for this is a lack of polish. Newer writers seem to stop at the second or third draft.

But there’s something else, something that comes with practice.

This is why we practice writing. And a great way to practice is by being part of a writers’ group.

A Pause, And Off We Go

I was listening to the album Thriller by Michael Jackson when it occurred to me there was a time when the music didn’t exist. I realise this isn’t a particularly profound thought, but bear with me.

According to Wikipedia, Thriller is the best selling album of all time, having sold over 70 million copies. It was recorded between April and November in 1982. That means there was a time between the album not existing and existing.

On April 14th Michael Jackson (and possibly Paul McCartney) walked into the studio to begin recording the Girl is Mine. At that moment the album existed only in potential. It’s reasonable to assume that some of the songs had been written down (or in Michael Jackson’s case, recorded on tape). The producer would have an idea for the arrangements, musicians would have been booked, but still, at that time there was no Thriller in the world.

The album would come by the interaction of minds and talents over the coming months. It would arrive in a different and better shape to that originally imagined.

I know Michael Jackson had big ambitions for the album, I imagine even he was surprised how big it became.

I’ve been musing on this for two reasons:

Firstly, the process described above is just the same as writing a story, albeit on a much larger scale.

And secondly, a close relative underwent surgery yesterday and I spent the day wondering about where they were for the four hours they were under anaesthetic.

I suppose what I’m saying is that you can plan all you like, nothing really exists until it interacts with the world.

Not an original thought, I know, but one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this week.

Indulge Me

Apologies for the gap in posts. I was on holiday in Athens. More on that in a later post.

For the moment, though, you might have noticed while I was away that Penguin have decided to rewrite some Jeeves and Wooster books. The right wing press are up in arms about this.

Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised about the rewrite. I talked about just such a thing a couple of months ago in this post.

I guess I should update this post while I’m here: Three Times I Predicted the Future

See you next week.

Eric Brown

I wrote my post last week knowing that Eric Brown had died. As the news had yet to be released I didn’t like to say anything. I’d like to speak about him now.

Eric and I met at Eastercon in Glasgow in the year 2000. We discovered we lived quite near each other and so arranged to meet up for a drink and chat when we got back home. Eric was an established writer, I was just beginning, and I valued his advice. When Eric moved first to Cambridge and then to Scotland the pints were less frequent, the chats took place over the phone or, later on, on zoom. Eric was a great friend.

But I’d like to talk about his writing.

Eric was a prolific writer. His method was to sit, wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by his books, and to write. You can read how he did it here: https://tonyballantyne.com/how-writers-write-eric-brown/.

He was natural story teller. His SF worked because he knew that it wasn’t the technology but the characters that made a story work.

Others have talked about Eric’s humanity, and that of his characters. I’d like to give an illustration of what this means.

I was delighted when Eric asked me to collaborate on a story as part of his Kethani series. I took great pleasure in setting up a vicar as the protagonist. Matthew was a sympathetic character, his faith troubled by the alien Kethani bringing people back to life. I was being deliberately awkward, setting up a situation where conflicting beliefs clashed. I couldn’t see a resolution, and I must admit there was a smile on my face as I hit send on the email, sending the MS to Eric.

He replied within hours. He resolved the problem in one elegant sentence, a line that left the dignity of all characters intact. The ending was a masterclass in storytelling.

Eric Brown was a great writer. More than that though, he was a great friend.

Queen Camilla

I’m currently reading Queen Camilla by Sue Townsend (paid link).

The book is a follow up to The Queen and I, in which the Royal Family are moved to a social exclusion zone in an ex-council estate. (No matter what they say about the genre, every mainstream author ends up incorporating SF into their work.)

Given the recent news about Princes Andrew and Harry, the public perception of the Royals will have changed a lot since this book was written. But I find it interesting how Townsend shaped her characters based upon images presented in the media at the time.

Even more so, its the way she does it. Sue Townsend was an excellent writer. Look at this scene where characters are revealed by which biscuit they chose.

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Charles, choose a bloody biscuit.’ Andrew grabbed a chocolate digestive and crammed it into his big-jawed mouth. Edward looked at his wife, Sophie. She said, ‘Have the wafer.’ He obediently took a pink wafer and nibbled at its edge. Sophie held the flat of her hand up and turned her head as Anne proffered her the tin.
Anne said, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’ Sophie replied, ‘It means that I do not want one of your biscuits, Anne. The last time I had one of your biscuits, it was covered in dog hair and I was ill for a week.’ When the tin was held out to Harry, he said, ‘I’m cool.’ Anne said, ‘We all know you’re cool, Harry, but do you want a bloody biscuit?’

I love her writing, spare, funny and razor sharp. Like every expert, she made it look so easy…

Redhead by the Side of the Road

I always think you can map a book to two axes: focus and travel.

The more you move along one axis, the less you move along the other. So if your story is packed full of excitement and plot twists (travel) there is less time to explore character (focus).

Ann Tyler’s books provide a good illustration of this. While many books mentioned on this site contain a cast of thousands and a span of light years and centuries, her books have a much narrower focus.

I love Ann Tyler’s books, though I haven’t read one in a long time. I started reading Redhead by the Side of the Road (sponsored link) on a long journey last week and finished it in two sittings. The story deals with one man living in a basement apartment. It rarely moves beyond that setting, and that’s a necessary part of its charm.

It’s all about breadth v depth. Both are worth exploring when writing. Both lead to fascinating books. But don’t try and do both at the same time.

Roald Dahl’s SF

Speaking of Roald Dahl, I’ve been re reading some of his short stories following the rewriting debate. I’d forgotten that he’d written SF. I’m thinking of stories such as Royal Jelly and, more topically, The Great Automatic Grammatizator which goes some way towards predicting the effects of software such as ChatGPT.

What I’m particularly noticing is a marked difference in his regular style and that of his SF stories. These have more in common with the SF that was current when he was writing (certainly the SF that I was reading when I first encountered Dahl.)

In those days SF tended to be about people solving a problem: why did the robot behave in a such a way? Why did the people on the planet disappear? There is this element to Dahl’s SF stories: a premise is extrapolated and then unravelled by the hero.

But compare this with Dahl’s regular stories. In these the protagonist is more likely to take risks. They create the problems, rather than solving them. They jump off a ship to make it slow down so they can win a sweepstake. They use identical dogs to raise the odds at a greyhound race. In these often macabre stories the tension is built internally to the protagonist, rather than externally.

There’s a very different feel to these stories, one that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days as I write myself.


I’ve never had someone change my stories in a way that I disagree with.

My work has been edited – of course it has. Editors have suggested many many changes to my work. They’ve clarified sentences that were hard to understand, they’ve cut boring passages and moved other passages around to make them more interesting.

No one has ever forced me to write something I don’t believe in.

So I’ve been wondering what I would think if an editor asked me to change the description of a character from fat to enormous. They might feel that the story was implying that to be fat was to be greedy. As I don’t believe that to be the case I’d probably want to change the word to avoid misunderstanding.

I mention this because of the recent news about Roald Dahl’s books being rewritten.

When I first read the above article I was against the idea of rewriting books, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if I’m really upset about the feeling that it’s my childhood that’s being rewritten. When I take the time to consider, many of the changes listed in the article seem quite reasonable. Language and attitudes change over time.

Rewrite is an emotive word. Is it a rewrite if the sense of the text isn’t changing, or is it just a judicious edit?

By way of illustration, I’ll quote my daughter. I bought her a collection of Jeeves and Wooster stories for Christmas. This is what she said:

“Dad this book you’ve bought me has so many iterations of the N word, and the climax involves him getting into black face.”

Should that text be edited to change the N word, should the climax be rewritten? Or should it be left as it is? I have my own opinion on this, but that’s for another post.